BY EMILY COIT

At first blush, Tornado Weather (Flatiron Books, 306 pages, $24.99) seems like a classic mystery potboiler. Set in Colliersville, Indiana—the kind of crumbling, blue-collar town Stephen King liked to invent, filled with junkyards and long-deserted amusement parks—the book hits its flashpoint when 5-year-old Daisy Gonzalez disappears on her way home from school.

But it soon becomes clear that this debut novel by Forest Grove author (and former WW contributor) Deborah Kennedy, is much more than a thriller. It is the portrait of a decaying town wounded by tragedy, a Winesburg, Ohio of small-town grotesques delivered with the starkness of Dennis Lehane.

Deborah Kennedy (Beth Behler)
Deborah Kennedy (Beth Behler)

Each of the book's 18 chapters is a vignette told by a different resident of Colliersville, each with a distinct style and voice. Each reveals a subtle clue about what happened to Daisy, while Daisy's disappearance becomes a mirror that reveals the humanity—and the secrets—of the people lurking at the story's fringes.

Gordy (alias: Ramon), a reporter from New York City working undercover at a dairy farm, must hide his identity from his co-worker and lover Maria, who "doesn't know who I really am and soon I'll be dead to her and everyone else." Shannon, the laundromat worker, has a relationship that's like "trying to rebuild the same wave-ravaged sand castle over and over and over." Willa, a transgender high school student, attempts to find peace within a town that refuses to accept her. The town's latent racism flares up when the dairy-farm foreman fires his white employees in favor of cheap migrant labor.

In other hands, this could be soap opera, but Kennedy's characters are real enough they seem to bead up from the page, even as they multiply beyond the reader's ability to hold them all in memory. Two-thirds into the book, the large cast of characters and the switchback connections between them can become overwhelming. This is not a book to be read casually—it demands the reader's undivided attention, and the pace can be slow. I found myself rereading sections and taking notes to keep it all straight.

Still, Tornado Weather is an ambitious, idiosyncratic triumph, its various strands wound together by the tragic mystery of Daisy at its core. It is darkness leavened by humor—as with the dairy workers who pretend they don't speak English so they can eavesdrop on their boss. But the book's greatest strength is the understanding that life's most significant moments occur amid banality. You might feel a life fall apart while sorting the wash, or see another one disappear while rolling away from the school bus.

GO: Deborah Kennedy reads at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., powells.com on Monday, July 31. 7:30 pm. Free.