At the heart of Stewart O'Nan's powerful fiction is his compassion for ordinary people, working-class people such as Ed and Fran Larsen, who must cash in their mutual funds to pay taxes, who each month can pay only a small amount on their credit card bills and who worry about looming college tuitions. A "salt-of-the-earth" type, Ed likes to fish and watch the Cleveland Indians play ball on TV. He is a real estate agent, affable and good at what he does.
His wife, Fran, is a capable assistant in the emergency room of the local hospital. The Larsens, central characters in O'Nan's 11th novel, "Songs for the Missing," live in Kingsville, a small town just off the interstate near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
The novel opens in the voice of Kim, their older daughter who is 18 and has graduated from high school a few weeks previous. Her sister, Lindsey, is 15. Kim and Nina, her best friend, work at the town's Conoco station, frantically saving money for college.
We learn that Kim has a boyfriend, J.P., whom her parents consider a "loser who might ruin her future." His mother has raised him by herself, which is a mark against him. Fran blames J.P. for Kim's tattoo.
Fran tries not to think about Kim's lifestyle, attributing it to immaturity. Both Fran and Ed know that Kim stays out too late, drinks too much and drives her old red Chevette too fast. Moreover, they suspect she's into drugs. Fortunately for them, Lindsey is a sensible young teenager, a straight-A student who plays flute in the school band.
Not surprisingly, Kim usually ignores her sister. Yet on July 14, the day Kim disappears, she not only takes Lindsey out for driving instruction (Lindsey will take her driver's license test in a few weeks), but she treats her to lunch at Dairy Queen. As they sit in the Chevette eating burgers, Kim affectionately acknowledges to her sister that she will miss her when she leaves home for college. Later, Kim drives out of town to meet her crowd of friends at their favorite swimming spot on the river. After a quick swim, she and Nina head back to town in their separate cars to punch in for their shifts at the Conoco station. Kim never makes it.
It is at this point that the narrative voice changes. O'Nan unfurls his chilling story through the alternating voices of Ed, Fran, Lindsey, Nina and J.P., all of whom are immeasurably transformed by the loss of Kim. Their faltering attempts at resilience are compelling. In addition to deeply missing Kim, feelings of guilt confuse and torture Nina and J.P. Out of loyalty to Kim, they fail to reveal to the police that Kim had, in fact, carried on a relationship with an older man, a disturbed Iraq war veteran known to deal in drugs.
With his characteristic spare prose style and his impressively precise use of detail, O'Nan both reflects and illuminates life in Kingsville. His major achievement, however, is the intensity of the empathy he conveys to readers for all who knew Kim Larsen.
Katherine Bailey, who lives in Bloomington, also reviews for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is writing a book titled "With a Critical Eye: Essays on Fiction."