There are many times in “Ocean State,” Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, when we feel the disparity between what characters are thinking and the clipped, terse way they express it in speech. Beneath the words they say, it’s as if there were a churning sea of emotion. This story of a crime of passion in a small Rhode Island suburb is very much about what is not said rather than what is said, and about the violence that can explode out of a calm that would seem to be the opposite of turbulent. Despite the banal surface, this novel invites us in — we want to know these people, learn about their complexities. In the end, they’re as interesting as you or I; O’Nan’s great gift is that we want to know more about every person he writes, no matter how unremarkable they seem from the outside.
Four women, related and not, tell this story, which begins with an announcement of the murder at its heart and does a spiritual backtrack from there. The women are not poor, necessarily, but they are just far enough from wealth to be turned on by it. Their world is bounded by the run-down, the shut-down-for-now, and the used-up, which O’Nan rolls out like a photorealist, as when he describes two lovers’ rendezvous spot: “The pastel motels and gray-shingled guest cottages are closed, their driveways roped off. NO TURNAROUNDS, a sign anchored by a whitewashed concrete block says, as if she still could.” This is of course the territory of many of O’Nan’s books, perhaps most notably “Last Night at the Lobster,” a story set in a similarly post-suburban, pre-collapse community. O’Nan here speaks to fans of his elegaic kitchen-sink mode, as opposed to the more quirky mode of Fitzgerald homage “West of Sunset” or “The Night Country,” narrated from beyond the grave. Everything is real here: the gas stations, the highways, and the dead bodies.
Birdy and Angel, both teens, are in love with Myles, who charms them by taking them to his parents’ place by the shore. Myles is more or less a cypher; O’Nan’s investment is in the two girls’ feelings for and about him, rather than in anything about him much more specific than his house and whatever casual grunts he manages to emit. The women are not much more expressive here: utterances like “Duh,” “Some rando,” and “Yeah” are typical length, give or take a few words, as the internal monologues carry the day.
Angel is his public, readily identifiable girlfriend: beautiful, high-striding, and vicious when pushed. Birdy is the “other” girlfriend, possibly more sincere than Angel, more vulnerable, but a secret… until she’s not. Her sincerity is questionable, though, given that she’s cheating on her own boyfriend, Hector, a naïf with basic and poorly expressed sexual needs, also a cypher. Angel’s sister Marie and Birdy’s mother Carol also bring us the narrative here; the latter is having her own fling with a lover, in his own beach house full of longing. Marie is pensive but resilient through the story’s challenges, both qualities that turn out to serve her well. It’s hard to tell why O’Nan left out the male perspectives, as at moments the novel feels like it is missing something without them. And yet the development of the book shows these women and their very separate voices singing in a bittersweet counterpoint that rises to an unforgettable shout and then subsides.
Because the town Birdy and Angel and Myles live in is too small to hold a secret for long, an incriminating photo surfaces of Birdy and Myles. As one might expect, it causes a storm of gossip. As one might also expect, Angel isn’t thrilled. And, given the cruelty that can serve as a second transactional language for people in their teens, Angel visits her unhappiness on Birdy in aggressive, indelible, physical ways. Does the warning, or rather the tackling and repeated pounding, work? No. Could it work? Probably not. Through prolonged exposure to the girls’ thoughts, O’Nan builds the novel’s tension until it feels like the air right before a monsoon; these teens, like all of us, are ruled by their passions, and passions can and do transcend human law.
When the said transcendence happens (in an ambush at Myles’ beach house that leaves Birdy dead — this isn’t a spoiler, it’s revealed on the first page), it all happens off-camera, as it were, in keeping with the simmering quality of the book. We won’t see any bloody corpses here, though we do hear a body described in a detached manner, as a summary of a police report. It would break the book’s rules to show the confrontation, the moment brought to its crisis. Instead, what we get is Angel’s self-examination. As one might expect, because this is a novel that depends on realism to throw characters’ crazed inner landscapes into relief, their attempts to hide the body fail, as do their attempts to walk away from the crime. The book shifts from romantic obsession to self-obsession as Angel ponders her fate. When legal justice arrives in the form of a sentence — as of course it does, because these impassioned teens weren’t quite worldly enough to cover their tracks effectively — it’s hardly dramatic. The jail time is taken in stride.
The book winds down in a contemplative manner. As we watch the characters drifting away from each other physically and psychologically, Marie’s stature grows, given that she is the one who has handed us these narrative perspectives, being the only “I” in the book. The entire telling becomes an act of empathy. It’s an invention, but one that drives home irrevocably and elegantly what you’d been feeling as you read but did not fully acknowledge: that there are as many different kinds of pain as there are people.
Max Winter is a writer, editor, and occasional illustrator, the author of “The Pictures” and “Walking Among Them.”
By Stewart O’Nan
Grove, 240 pages, $27