WELL

By Matthew McIntosh

Grove. 274 pp. $23

At first glance, there's a lot for the casual browser to be suspicious of in Matthew McIntosh's debut work of fiction. There's a punning, portentous-sounding title, given a voguishly bleak treatment on the cover. There is, listed in the contents pages, a full complement of arch yet deadpan chapter headings -- as in "It's Taking So Damn Long to Get Here," and "Though Occasionally Glaring or Violent, Modern Color Is on the Whole Eminently Somber: The Border" -- sometimes followed by snatches of self-aware narration from each chapter. And most of all, there's the author's bio, tersely informing us that the muse behind "Well" is a mere 26 years old.

Readers who've been burned one too many times in the giddy self-referenced hall of mirrors that is postmodern fiction could be forgiven for asking themselves some variation of "How long, Lord, how long?" But they would be unwise. For Matthew McIntosh, young and despondent though he may be, is the real thing -- a tremendously gifted and supple prose hand, recounting all manner of human distress and extremity in an assured and generous voice, balancing, as all honest practitioners of the fictional art must, the delicately pitched forces of fate, remorse and grace.

He does all this, moreover, in the supremely unlikely precincts of Federal Way, Wash., a patch of exurban no man's land not far from the Seattle-Tacoma airport. The interlocking vignettes that make up "Well" -- which conforms only in the loosest sense to the narrative conventions of the novel -- revolve around how Federal Way's forgotten citizens strain to carve out intelligible destinies for themselves against a built environment that, down to its most basic details, denies any quarter to such outmoded fantasy.

Their plight is summed up neatly in one representative exchange between two slacker-ish souls, who meet randomly, years after weathering together a fairly standard tour of controlled substances and failed countercultural ambitions. "This town is too full these days," the jumpier of the two remarks (in paraphrase by an unnamed female narrator). "There are too many people, too many stoplights, too many banks, clothes and grocery stores . . . too many people he doesn't know, more people than he has the capacity to know, who don't know him and don't have the capacity to know him." When the narrator seeks to break this mounting delirium with an innocent query about two nearby gas stations caught up in the same corporate merger, he brushes her aside with the crowning indignity that is life in Federal Way: "THERE ARE EIGHTY-THREE THOUSAND EIGHT HUNDRED AND FIFTY OF US AND WE'RE NOT EVEN ON THE MAP."

That is the de facto slogan of nearly all of the characters in "Well," condemned to be preoccupied with things that the rest of the world scarcely notices: amateur boxing bouts, dead-end jobs in construction or retail, obsessively following the fortunes of the Seattle SuperSonics, and at one time or another haunting a bar near the airport called the Trolley. And as they go through these appointed rounds, the great dramas of life continue to harry and unsettle them. A college student recounts his pained high school efforts to court a neighborhood girl as his mother, abandoned by her philandering husband, sinks irretrievably into madness -- and, we come to suspect, is dragging her son along with her. A teenage boy strains to seduce his girlfriend, only to find both himself and her plunged into the worst sort of confessional traumas. A divorced Vietnam vet gets a terminal cancer diagnosis; the bartender at the Trolley, to which he adjourns immediately afterward to drown his sorrow, is a desperately closeted gay man, episodically promiscuous and permanently loveless.

All depressing stuff, and in many ways the overlapping character studies in "Well" serve as a kind of postindustrial update of the similarly hopeless small-town lives Sherwood Anderson depicted in his similarly composed (and similarly despairing) 1918 novel, "Winesburg, Ohio." We learn, for instance, that the book is not named for the adverb in "hail fellow well met," but rather for one character's sense that no matter where she finds herself in the course of an ordinary day, "I'm there, at the bottom of a well," a sense that her husband sees registering on her face as "a constant look of near-absolute abandonment."

But McIntosh's characters are not, as are so many of their counterparts in postmodern fiction, appointed to feel bad in pat and ambient exercises of self-disarming humiliation. They are, rather, tugging insistently at questions that stretch far beyond the horizons of Federal Way, and indeed of their lives at large. As the sexually troubled teen narrator of one of the book's strongest vignettes, "Looking Out for Your Own" puts it, "what we need most isn't to be comforted or assured, or told that everything will be all right. What's the use of crying and holding on to each other and talking in soft, soothing voices . . . when what we need is really something different and that is just to be saved."

It's a tremendous relief to hear a character owning up to such an essential and direct need in the oft-miniaturized, compulsively wisecracking world of American fiction -- and it's still more heartening that an author as young as McIntosh would be wise enough to grant his creations such vulnerability and spiritual dignity. (Which is not to say that he doesn't also outfit them with a lot of self-awareness and wit, as well; as this same sad-sack narrator confesses in nearly the same breath, "I can't even run away right.") Even though "Well" contains some missteps -- most notably "Gunman," an ostentatious and off-key faux-journalistic account of a killer's rampage -- it is an astonishingly sharp and satisfying debut. Matthew McIntosh most definitely has put Federal Way on the map -- and himself along with it.