THE WORLD is most imposing, its enormity most present, at its smallest. An out-of-the-blue phone call, a closetful of clothes of the recently deceased, an aimless drive, a quiet dinner for two at the local hole-in-the-wall pizza joint, a repeating runaway memory. These things happen, and we say, this is it, this is life. This is also what Peter Orner writes about exquisitely: he captures everyday life in its natural habitat, when it is most quiet and terrifying — what he calls “the ordinary strange.”
Orner’s first collection, Esther Stories (recently reissued), explored the notion of grief stretched over time. A couple maimed by the decade-old death of their son “blame each other silently” over pizza at Papa Gino’s; a landlord confronts both the death of a tenant and separation from his wife as he stands over a pile of clothes, “mothy,” “pungent,” and “mildewed”; a family is haunted by the what-ifs of a beautiful daughter who was increasingly isolated by her mythic presence amongst them; as one character remarks: “Always. We’re always talking about Esther.” In the eponymous story, with some help from a few surrounding pieces, Orner managed to achieve a scale of tragedy not far from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. (It’s not a stretch to see Esther as a modern Caddy Compson.)
In his latest collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, Orner is still intent on revealing the quiet terror and melancholy of everyday life in America, and he’s still employing his distilled prose, but the scope is much larger. In a recent interview with SF Weekly, he remarked:
I've been trying for years to say more with less. And here maybe I take things to extremes, but this is what I'm truly after. A kind of radical compression. Lots of lives in one short book. I kind of see the world this way. All these stories that people are carrying around with them, I want to tell. I walk down the street and there are so many people, so many stories. I want to chip away at this, person by person.
Orner’s stated ambition is revealing — he is one of our most empathic writers today — and it comes at a cost. At times, his new collection feels necessarily ephemeral, a natural byproduct of the effort: it packs over 50 “stories” in a shade over 200 pages. Some are fragments, conversations caught in the middle, interrupted vignettes, shards of memoir, and scenes that hang on unspoken ellipses. Orner sprinkles these often-untitled passages between stories that range between four and eight pages in length. It’s all rather dizzying, but somehow the writing hasn’t changed so much as the ground has grown increasingly scarce. Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is like a facade-less housing project — a view of many lives in relatively small confines.
Orner did not invent the one-page story, nor is writing economically new to literature or great lines (like Orner’s “all those shoes waiting to be shined like the ghosts of so many feet”); what is original is his narrative structure, a kind of layering of voices that runs quietly through each story.
In “Spokane,” a character asks her boyfriend, “If I tell you something will you listen?”
A voice through a voice, a story through a story. Orner seems to work with a natural set of filters that often, if not always, bring clarity, an extreme poignancy to his fiction. In “Herb and Rosalie Swanson at the Cocoanut Grove,” Orner tells the story of a couple who’ve told a story so many times over so many years in so many iterations that they’ve lost themselves and their relationship to it. The Swanson couple ate dinner at the Cocoanut Grove the night of the tragic fire, the night the restaurant burned to the ground. They left an hour before the fire started (due to Herb’s indigestion), but in their telling, they experience the patrons, the calm, even serene setting seconds before, and then the engulfing flames, the “desperate screams,” and finally the valiant firefighters, the city’s deep sadness. It’s all a big lie, their firsthand account. And by the time we’re done, we’ve experienced the story as memory, as history, as projection, as defense, in regret.
There’s nobody else in the room, and Herb watches her watching him, and he tries not to listen, and he vows to himself he’ll never bring any of this up again, ever. He even goes one further and promises himself that one of these days he’ll come clean [...]. It never happened, folks. [...] My dear friends, let me be frank, the long and the short of it was (pause, drumroll) Pepto-Bismol.
It’s as much a writing experiment as it is a psychological one. Orner seems to ask himself: How many ways can I enter this story, how many ways can I tell it? Yet he is never cruel to his characters, and his experimentation here isn’t without purpose. The story inside the story isn’t some elaborate literary distraction but a vehicle, a stripping agent which removes the couple’s protective veneer to expose their quiet terror, and, after all these years, their strangeness to one another.
After he stopped telling the Cocoanut Grove out loud, this is the part that was most alarming. This is what made Herb try to banish those two words from his brain the way the city of Boston forbade them from commercial register. Rosalie serene while he and everyone else in the place —
In another story, “Horrace and Josephine,” our narrator remarks:
My brother told me this last part as we stood blowing into our hands at Josephine’s graveside service in the late 1990s. He said not to repeat it. He got it from my mother, who told him not to tell anybody. She’d heard it from my grandmother who’d told her, before she herself died, not to breathe a word to a soul.
As Tom Bissell writes jokingly in Harper’s:
If Orner wrote a piece of fiction about, say, a bank robbery, it wouldn’t be about the robbers, the teller, or the police. It would be a story about someone describing having once met the guy who sold the robbers their ski masks.
Stories are how Orner’s characters relate to the world. Through them they experience their own abstract pain, their intimate shame, and unsurprisingly, their most profound recognitions. Narrative is for them a coping mechanism and a way of life. For Orner, their stories are tools he uses to propel his story toward an emotional high point without the needless authorial hand-holding.
Consequently, Orner’s fiction has an intimate feel: we are in conversation with otherwise unknown and forgotten lives. This is what makes Orner’s characters live and breath beyond the page; this is what allows him to play with the empty spaces that accompany his fragmental short stories. This is how his clean, simple sentences succeed far beyond the limited space he gives them.
In the latter half of Esther Stories and in his second novel, Love and Shame and Love, Orner wrote with a long narrative thread; much of the power of individual scenes and moments coming from the fact that they were fragments of a larger fiction. Orner could use those big white spaces at the end of the page as splices. Silence became omission; omission became another aspect of the story. Orner could write a complete character sketch in one page, a quick, seemingly random rattle of dialogue between two characters, show us an intimate letter addressed to a loved one, and all of it worked, kept a sense of familiarity, of something common to which we were returning. Maybe we weren’t getting the whole story, far from it, but whatever information Orner gave, however fractured these memories were, they felt cumulative, and then complete.
In Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, many of the stories are more insistently fragments. The shards of memory, the short character sketches, the moments of internal dialogue, the compressed pieces of scene, summary, and dialogue — they don’t connect with each other in a standard novelistic way. They are intimate and achieve a quick surge of empathy, but the people don’t live or walk around or develop like conventional realist characters; they are more like apparitions, they ask for your attention, but only for a moment before they disappear.
The collection is also peppered with appearances by characters from Orner’s earlier work, where he documented the Kaplan and Popper families in startling, and always empathetic detail. In this new collection, in addition to its own large cast of characters, the Kaplans and the Poppers make regular cameo appearances. In “At the Fairmont” readers are treated to a short snippet-like prequel to Seymour and Bernice Popper’s long dysfunctional marriage. The Kaplans show up in many of the brief epistolary pieces and elsewhere. For admirers of Orner’s previous works, their inclusion is fun but distracting. Instead of experiencing Orner’s new world — the humorous dialogue and tragic beauty of “Renters,” the suffocating weight of “Spokane,” the Charlie Kaufmanesque humor of “Geraldo, 1986” — we are continually drawn back to the scenes of his earlier work: Highland Park and Fall River. Their inclusion can also remind us of what Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is missing — a larger narrative structure.
Perhaps it’s disconnection that Orner is after these days. In one of his last entries on his column at The Rumpus, “The Lonely Voice,” Orner, while riding on a crowded bus outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, maps his thoughts as his mind jumps from the book in his lap, V.S. Pritchett’s Essential Stories, to a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie playing from a portable device in the seat next to him. Throughout the essay Orner battles his writerly desire to construct connective tissue where there is none:
It might be expected that I will now link the elements I’ve raised here, Van Damme, the Republic of Haiti, and the great English storywriter V.S. Pritchett. But this time I won’t. The fact is that but for all three things happening to me at this moment, on this bus, they have zero to do with each other. Why force it?
It’s a good question, one Orner likely asked himself often while writing the many wonderful stories in his new collection. And while many (including this writer) will point to the book’s slender nature, its dashed-off, letter-like feel, Orner’s most impressive work can be found somewhere between the empty spaces and the more traditional notions of narrative thread.
Let us be thankful for Peter Orner. “Let us now praise disconnection,” he writes in that Rumpus essay. “It doesn’t fit. It will never fit. It fits.”