By Karen Osborn. West Virginia University Press. 242 pages. $16.99
On a hazy, hot, August afternoon in 1967, a small town in the Midwest explodes — literally, as a homemade bomb is detonated in the town’s drugstore, and figuratively, as the residents deal with the tragedy and its aftermath.
The novel “Centerville,” penned by Karen Osborn, the 2013 Louis D. Rubin Jr. Writer-in-Residence at her alma mater Hollins University, follows the lives of several townspeople as they try to make sense of a senseless act. The book’s time frame is confined to the day of the crime and the first few days following, when emotions are raw and many of the characters are in a state of anger, disbelief and shock.
With her hand on the door of the drugstore, 14-year-old Sandi Edwards suddenly has the urge to not enter the store. Her companion, Bert Greeley, the daughter of the store’s owner, is perplexed at her friend’s suggestion that they head to the nearby bowling alley, but reluctantly follows. Minutes later, the once sleepy town is rocked when George Fowler, the husband of one of the store’s workers, delivers an explosive device that will kill nearly everyone inside and turn the quiet main street into an inferno.
Osborn explores how each of the teenagers, Sandi’s father — minister of Centerville’s Methodist church — the widow of the drugstore’s owner and a troubled cop injured at the scene, navigates the tragedy.
Insert into this emotional chaos the plight of the town’s lone black police officer, a recently returned Vietnam veteran and the subject of bigotry from his fellow officers, and the reappearance of the crime’s perpetrator, who escaped the store before the blast.
There is a lot going on in “Centerville” — maybe a little too much. While all the lives of the victims and survivors are interconnected, the threads of the story get tangled. The reader gets mere glimpses into the troubled marriage of George and Joyce Fowler, the crisis of faith of the minister, the angst and survivor’s guilt in both the girls that strains their friendship. The widow of the drugstore owner focuses her energy into smashing her families dishes and creating a mosaic on her kitchen wall — a metaphor for her shattered sense of order.
In narrowing the focus to such a short time frame, the reader sees all the characters transform, but are left to wonder into what. While it is certainly true that we often never find a complete explanation to acts of random violence, it is human nature to want to discover as many facts as can be found. The novel ends in an abrupt and unsatisfying way with many unanswered questions.
Osborn is a talented writer and “Centerville” is a compelling read, but the in the end the storytelling here feels unfinished.