Friday, April 20, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"O Street" | Strong first novel of a painful mother-daughter bond

Seattle Times book critic

Author appearance

Corrina Wycoff reads from "O Street," 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the RASP reading series, Stone House Cafe, 16244 Cleveland St., Redmond; free (425-867-1914 or, and 7 p.m. April 30, University Book Store, 4326 University Ave N.E., Seattle (with Stacey Levine); free (206-634-3400 or

There's no getting around it: This is one grim, tough, upsetting book. Yet it's also shot through with a painful radiance and level intelligence that keep you with it every step of the way.

Its 10 linked tales starkly recognize how even the most toxic family connections have some kind of love threaded through them. And its heroine, even in the worst circumstances, keeps fierce hold of her dignity — a dignity that may be a hair's breadth from despair, but is no less genuine for that.

In other words, Corrina Wycoff's fiction debut, "O Street" (OV Books/University of Illinois Press, 145 pp., $17.95), is pretty unusual stuff.

Wycoff lives in Seattle now. But the stories of "O Street" are set in the tenements of Jersey City, where protagonist Elizabeth Dinard (alternately "Beth" and "Lizzie") grew up, and in various neighborhoods in Chicago, where she tries to invent a feasible life for herself — sometimes succeeding, sometimes backsliding horrifically.

The abyss that keeps trying to reclaim her is her mother, Angela: a mentally ill drug addict whose jittery behavior and parade of sleazy, fellow-junkie boyfriends did serious criminal damage to Beth when she was young.

The reader gets a taste of what Angela is capable of in the opening story, "The Wrong Place To Be." In Chicago, Beth gets a phone call from a Dr. Brant, informing her that her mother has had a heart attack and that if she wants to see her before she dies, Beth should get to Jersey City pronto: "Bring whatever money you can."

Beth is leaving behind a decent job, a decent apartment and a decent lover, Rachel. In Jersey City, the hospital shows no Dr. Brant on its records and no patient answering to Angela's description. Beth crumbles — but Wycoff, structuring her book with subtle wile, holds off revealing the extent to which she crumbles.

The next few stories dip back into the past: the moment of total estrangement between Beth's mother and grandmother; an episode where Angela is at the height of her mania; a harebrained wintertime move that mother and daughter make from Jersey City to a Jersey shore motel.

But it's when we see 14-year-old Beth through the eyes of one of her schoolmates that we get the full measure of how monstrously Angela has treated her.

We already know that Beth, at 17, will manage to escape and use her native smarts "to make it, however tenuously, out of the underclass." Still, there's an echo of her mother's psychic makeup in her — and a vulnerability to collapse that she has to fight to overcome.

Pride saves her, but pride almost kills her, too. Even if she were to overcome her pride and ask for help, there's little assurance that the help she needs is anywhere to be found.

Wycoff's primary aim is to alight on the story of Beth and her mother from every angle. But behind this is a broader ambition: to show how riddled with pitfalls any attempted escape from the American underclass is. The hazards, Wycoff shows, are psychological as much as they are physical or economic. The isolation Beth feels from every form of social stability undermines almost all her connections with people, no matter how responsibly or industriously she conducts herself.

As her girlfriend, Rachel, puts it, not unkindly: "I can't keep reassuring you, you know ... It's tedious."

Wycoff, here and elsewhere, displays a sharp ear for how speech can signal a gulf between social realities impossible to bridge. Even the smallest instances can trigger Beth's awareness of that gulf — for instance when, while working a telephone survey job, she's put off by "the pert answering machine messages that served as windows into brighter lives than hers."

Wycoff neither sentimentalizes nor despairs at Beth's fate. Instead, she portrays its brutal facts and unexpected turns with a clarity and immediacy that have formidable power. Most of all she does justice to the complex tenacity of connection that can exist between a dutiful, gullible daughter and an abusive train wreck of a mother.

Michael Upchurch:

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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