Weighed in the Balance: A Little Girl, a Big Country

The Center of Everything , by Laura Moriarty. Hyperion, 291 pages, $22.95.

It’s no surprise that Americans, obsessed as we are with innocence and transcendence, have a particular affinity for the coming-of-age novel. An affinity so strong, in fact, that reviewers can be excused for getting a little squinty-eyed when the latest one makes its inevitable appearance. Another piece of semi-autobiographical fiction by a debut novelist. Another feisty child-narrator, wise beyond her years. Another set of gritty experiences to be successfully overcome and redeemed. And yet Laura Moriarty’s first novel, though it seems to fit squarely into this category, is pretty irresistible almost from the first paragraph: a comic and precisely observed tale of growing up and leaving home in Reagan’s America, it also manages to circle back and hit us where we live now.

The novel opens in 1980, with Evelyn Bucknow watching TV as the President-to-be addresses the Republican National Convention. Her mother is neglecting their dinner of grilled cheese sandwiches to wave her spatula at the screen; she’s afraid that Reagan is going to start a nuclear war. Evelyn’s grandmother, on the other hand, believes that Reagan is the only one who can save them from Communism, and is therefore willing to overlook the fact that six-letter names are a no-no according to the Book of Revelations. Actor or true believer? Ten-year old Evelyn is undecided: “He has the voice of a nice person, and something that makes his hair shiny under the lights. I change the channel but it’s still him, just from a different angle.” A child with both religious and scientific leanings, Evelyn will spend the rest of the novel wrestling with similar questions of perspective.

In conventional terms, Evelyn is not living at the center of everything: She’s not even living in the center of Kerrville, Kan., her hometown. Instead, she and her mother have washed up in a dilapidated apartment complex called Treeline Colonies, which is so far out on the highway that when the bus service is canceled, almost any form of gainful employment becomes impossible. And yet Evelyn believes that she is chosen: Her fourth-grade teacher taps her forehead and tells her that she has a gift; her grandmother assures her that, if she believes, she will go to Heaven. And the state of Kansas, after all, is smack in the middle of the United States, which-as any map will show you-is at the center of the world.

Evelyn’s mom, Tina, a sexy redhead who got pregnant in high school and crosses her eyes slightly whenever she tells a joke, has fewer illusions about her importance in the general scheme of things. Abandoned by her boyfriend and disowned by her fundamentalist father, she works in a dog-food factory downtown and is dependent on the kindnesses of her boss for transportation. When, desperate for a new car, Tina takes Evelyn to dinner at her parents’ house to ask for help, Tina’s little sister looks at her, turns to their father and ask brightly what happened to the horse: “You said the horse was coming tonight. The little horse.”

The other residents of Treeline Colonies are similarly stranded in their lives-left by parents or husbands or companies like the unwanted pets dumped in the field across the highway. There’s no gothic regionalism here, just an understated reckoning of the cruelties of poverty and the rage and dread that breeds in these forgotten pockets of the country. In this confined and confining world, which consists chiefly of the local school, the apartment complex and the bus that goes back and forth, how much does Evelyn count ? That’s what she’s trying to figure out, and it’s also the moral question that energizes the novel. Does she win the science prize, as a wealthier classmate claims, only because she has no father and their teacher feels sorry for her? When a stoned teenage boy sitting in a van in a field rates her as a 4 out of 10, does that mean that she will be a victim of natural selection? (“So there it is. I am the limping antelope. I cannot be allowed to reproduce.”) Or do we all deserve to be saved-even if we happen to doubt the existence of Jesus just as we get hit by a bus?

In the complicated moral universe of this novel, everyone is humanized-the fundamentalist preacher, the shoplifting truant, the leering Vietnam vet next-door-but no one is innocent, and part of Evelyn’s appeal is she doesn’t seem all that innocent, either. It’s hard to show great generosity of spirit when you’re busy dodging your financial destiny. When Tina gets pregnant again and Evelyn feels that her mother’s sins are threatening to drag her into oblivion, she turns her back and soldiers on. But if Evelyn must bear the burden of her own culpability and errors in judgment, so must we: Ms. Moriarty, by repeatedly evoking church and state, implicates us all in her heroine’s predicaments, not simply as individuals but as Americans. How do we position ourselves in relation to places like Kerrville, Kan.-or, for that matter, places in other countries that mean equally little to us? Do they count? Evelyn tries to puzzle this out while listening to Reagan defend his arms-for-hostages deal: “When he says ‘God bless America,’ I think he means it so much that in some ways, he is almost crazy, like maybe in his mind he sees a ray of light coming down from the sky, shining down on America and no one else, just because he loves it so much. So then he would have to lie and cheat to save Texas from the Communists, and he would still be as good as Moses, smiting down the Middianites, even the little children. It gets confusing, because that’s why he hates the Communists in the first place. Because they lie and cheat. But if America is really blessed, then it’s different for us.”

Almost two decades after Iran-contra and two years after Sept. 11, the slippery logic of this kind of political rhetoric is unsettlingly familiar; our leaders invoke a sacred and shining America with increasing frequency and force. But for New Yorkers, who are unused to having our own myopic view of the world wedded to national policy, the fact that Ground Zero has become the metaphorical launching pad for wars fought in America’s name is particularly disorienting. When is the belief that we are at the center of everything necessary for our survival, and when does it become a form of potentially lethal arrogance? With quiet persistence, Laura Moriarty suggests that these questions are always worth asking. As one of Evelyn’s teachers reminds her science class, constellations only make sense from Earth: “‘If you were looking at the Big Dipper from another solar system,’ she explains, ‘it would look like something else, or maybe like nothing at all.’”

Alice Truax has written reviews for The New Yorker , Vogue , and The New York Times Book Review .