IN AN UNTITLED STORY late in Peter Orner’s Last Car over the Sagamore Bridge, a man reflects as a wrecking ball strikes his furniture store. His father, a Lithuanian immigrant, built the store some 40 years earlier, but now a section of Interstate 95 will be paved in its place. It’s Fall River, Massachusetts, 1966, and Walt Kaplan stands on the sidewalk and weeps into his sleeve. While we might expect that the tears are for Walt’s store, for his father, or even for his uncertain predicament — how will he make his living now? — we come to learn he’s crying for a memory, one he thinks will perish without the actual store to support it. What he knows he will miss most is looking out from his office window into the alley and watching lazy Irv Pincus, cousin and employee, as he hawks Hudson Bay lamps stolen from the showroom floor. It’s the sort of bizarre yet veridical Chekhovian detail that Orner delights in, both in his fiction and in his recent essay collection, Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live.
Like the Kaplan story, Am I Alone Here? has its origins in hard times. The book’s sincere and empathic introduction explains that without these hard times — in particular the dissolution of his first marriage and his father’s death — this book may never have existed. In the months following his father’s death, for the first time in a long time, he found he was unable to write fiction. Orner loved his father, though the two of them were never close. He puts the difficulty best in an essay on Bernard Malamud’s “My Son the Murderer.” “They see themselves in us,” he writes. “While we run from the them in us.” Orner remembers lamenting the obligation to call his father on Father’s Day. Eventually he does, after some prodding from his brother, and father and son talk Dostoevsky and politics. His father calls Orner a bedwetter and President Obama a pansy-ass. Their strained conversation reminds him of Malamud’s story, of a son who “kills” his father because he refuses to talk. The protagonist, Harry, is depressed. The Vietnam War is underway and he waits every day for his draft notice to arrive. Harry’s father watches, spies, aches to know what’s bothering his son. When this pressure becomes too great, Harry does try to talk, however, “his sorrow is as profound as it is inexplicable.”
In the other essays, too, Orner returns to the stories that have helped him make sense of the world. As he rereads them, he finds them refreshed with new meaning and personal connections. Orner recently told an interviewer in [PANK] Magazine, “I think of them as morning notes to myself,” and it’s easy to see what he means. Personal anecdote, feelings, gossip, biographical and historical information, and criticism come together in pieces that are brief, immediate, and deeply personal. They reflect particular moments of difficulty and joy, and even as Orner tells us why these stories succeed for him, capturing his own subjective essence as a reader of fiction, he convinces us that the extraordinary list of stories he relates has something to tell us, as well.
As both a reader and a writer, Orner is generally suspicious of conventionally conceived literary constructions. He says:
Teaching seminar a few years ago, I remember saying that it is critical to always ask yourself why you are telling your story. What a line of bullshit. I’ve learned this at least. To stop making pronouncements. Stories need no why. They only need to breathe a little on the page.
Fiction is alchemy, he argues. It has no formula, no necessary parts. As a medium it is ill-equipped to tell us about its own purposes, let alone what life is about. Likewise, Am I Alone Here? avoids academic postulation and literary jargon. For instance, the concept of “point of view” — something Orner takes many liberties with in his own work — is mentioned in only one essay. In another, he winces at the term “dialogue” as too clinical, and quickly shuns it in favor of “talk.” Talk is what people do. Stories are about people. And the stories as related in Am I Alone Here? are meant to be appreciated and shared, not critiqued and analyzed, and this approach results in a book that is accessible, a book that’s for the kind of reader you are, no matter what kind of reader you are. It will meet you over and over again in places you’ve known and situations you’ve lived, and reading it brings a feeling of repeated anticipation, as if you recall crying over a deeply moving story even before Orner admits to the emotions that overcome him when reading John Edgar Wideman’s “Welcome.” In Am I Alone Here?, we’re talking about life even if, as Orner says, we must do so with “inarticulate wonderment.”
In an essay on Wright Morris’s “A Fight Between a White Boy and a Black Boy in the Dusk of a Fall Afternoon in Omaha, Nebraska,” a story where exactly what the title says is happening, two fighters have moved across the schoolyard and into the street, flanked by a crowd of goading boys. “How did it start?” asks Morris in the first sentence. “If there is room for speculation, it lies in how to end it.” The fighters are tired. They have lost the will to continue. But an unspoken code demands they finish it. “Nobody is going to win,” writes Morris. “The dilemma is how nobody is going to lose.” The street lamps come on and the crowd of boys dwindles to one. The last boy watches the fighters as they continue down the darkened street, heading into the black section of town. As the fighters fade into the dark, the last boy runs away into the night. We never learn how this winless fight began. All that’s certain is the memory that it did, a memory filtered through the sole remaining bystander, now a man, still running, who drives past Omaha on the interstate highway in the middle of the night. Why remember this fight? The school is gone, the bakery, even the neighborhood, but interstate highways, Orner suggests, have a way of digging up the past even as they seem to swallow it.
Chekhov’s “The Bishop,” follows the last day of a bishop’s life — an average day even if it’s his last. He’s busy, but not too busy, and he fulfills his duties as usual. It isn’t what the bishop does that’s worth paying attention to, but what, upon his deathbed, he remembers: a moment from his childhood when the nasty son of the village priest called the cook a “Jehud’s ass.” The bishop reflects on the village priest’s shame when he is unable to remember where in the Bible such an ass is mentioned. “This is not epic deathbed stuff,” says Orner, but real: the inconsequential moment of shame is the enduring memory.
Some of the 41 essays take on heavyweights like Eudora Welty, William Maxwell, and Saul Bellow, while others examine the works of lesser-known writers — the passionate and terse Gina Berriault, the haunted and enigmatic Breece D’J Pancake, and the prolific yet today almost forgotten Wright Morris — and writers in other languages: Yasunari Kawabata, Imre Kertész, Václav Havel, Heinrich Böll, Robert Walser, and more. What Orner appreciates most about them is their silences, their respect for inexpressibility. “There are so many things we find it impossible to say,” writes Orner,
But we, like Akaky Akakievich [in Gogol’s “The Overcoat”] pleading his case to a general who doesn’t hear a word he says, try to tell them, anyway. What choice? The failure of certain stories to say what they are trying to say is the source of their inexplicable force.
The stories in Am I Alone Here? represent a tradition that Orner now carries on in his own quiet stories. They begin at kitchen tables, in private studies, on solitary walks. They tend to remain there, the story’s action largely remembered by reflecting characters revisiting the same moments in their minds, retelling the same stories to those who listen. In Orner’s fictions, and in the stories he relates in this book, reflection breeds invention, remembering being a fundamentally creative act. Orner claims he prefers stories where “nothing happens,” but he’s half kidding. Plenty happens in the mind.
Take Orner’s story “Herb and Rosalie Swanson at the Cocoanut Grove” from Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge. The title characters are telling their dinner party guests about the great fire of 1942. They tell it so convincingly that you’d believe they were in the club like they say. They weren’t. They left early that night — on account of Herb’s indigestion — but their claim on the story is eternal. Herb remembers the score of the Boston College–Holy Cross football game, how many lives were saved because BC lost, how many fire departments responded, where they came from, and even, for some strange reason, the name of the last Buck Jones movie, all of the peripheral details, although not much about the club itself. We vividly recall moments that we experience from the edges, while those we experience from the center seem to fade. Our fullest memories, the ones that endure, are of the result of fragmented, arbitrary, even false experience. Or, as Orner puts it, “Chekhov knows how this actually works, that what we remember is often as much an invention as any story we make up out of whole cloth.”
And when we make up these stories, we must tell them over and over, like the old drunk in the roadside bar in Juan Rulfo’s “Luvina.” Orner writes, “I’ve come to believe: as often as not, it’s not the telling, it’s the repeating. Rulfo’s work at its core is about people unburdening themselves of the stories they can’t stop telling.” Sound familiar Herb and Rosalie? And what do such stories deserve? Good listeners.
Like silence, close listening, or in this case, close reading, is not a passive act. One must repeatedly engage with a work in order to find the singular minutiae. “Stories fail if you only read them once. You’ve got to meet a story again and again, in different moods, in different eras of your life.” In a single reading, we might not hear, in Rulfo’s “Luvina,” the sound of old women’s dresses rustling like bat wings as they walk to church before dawn. With each new meeting we arrive anew at the kind of reckless joy that is our reward for intense noticing.
Some of the essays in Am I Alone Here?, particularly later in the book, feel dashed off, not going nearly as deep as they might, in part because most of them derive from “The Lonely Voice,” a column Orner wrote for The Rumpus, named after the dense and illuminating critical text by Frank O’Connor. Even if individual essays might have benefitted from post-Rumpus expansion and revision — especially the elegiac essays on writers like Victor Martinez and James Salter — their ethereal quality, the particular moment that called them to being, gives them their inexpressible force. Their immediacy shapes them.
In a time of loss, Orner turned to reading. In the middle of writing this review, my own grandmother died. It was sudden and no one had been prepared for it. And as was true for Orner, after her passing it seemed natural for me to stand in front of the bookshelf in search of something. What story might help me? What book for my grief? None spoke. When I first read this book I had a premonition, wondering where I would look when loss struck. I tried to recall what I had turned to in the past, but everything seemed so far away. But there I was with Am I Alone Here?, and I realized it was enough.