I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Peter Orner. But, that hasn’t stopped me from ragging on him about his past books as though he’s an old friend. He shares his last name with my college roommate and lifelong friend, Dave Orner. This is not a ‘you know one Orner, you know them all’ sort of thing. It’s just that I’m very fond of both of them – Dave personally and Peter through his writing.
With Maggie Brown & Others (Little Brown and Company, 2019) Peter Orner takes me with him on a long road trip. Belted into a comfortable bucket seat, the American countryside racing along in my periphery, fast food wrappers littering the floor, the median dashes promising endless highways and boundless time, I’m happy to listen.
Orner amuses me with childhood tales, revels in college pranks, mourns long lost friends and misbegotten affairs, talks about uncles and grandparents as if we’d just stopped by their place for dinner and through it all he articulates the absurd shit, the stuff that runs through all our brains — keen observations, weird takes on everyday minutiae – and he makes sense of it with the right mix of details and reflection. The genius of it all — the order of the stories, the underlying themes – is that it gathers into a gentle enthrallment, like the lines of the highway achieving a hypnotic pull.
Phrases leap out at me. I make him pause while I think about, “The way her bare legs looked, scissored across each other, as though she were in midrun.”
Before the next story begins I ruminate over the closing line of the last one, “A lot depended on what they both forgot.”
I not only get to know Orner’s past, but pick-up on the great writers and thinkers that have touched his mind. He drops them into his stories like touchstones, relishing the sound of their names – Jean Rhys, Baruch Spinoza, Isaac Babel, John Kenneth Galbraith. I am impressed with his self-restraint. Never expounding on his mentors or their ideas, he edges around an insight until you see if for yourself.
I seldom read short story collections. I’m a gluttonous reader. I like to take a few bites of a story, savor its taste and know that I have a huge mound of it, hundreds of pages of the same dish, to sate my appetite. But, having pricked my soul in the past with books like Am I Alone Here? and Love and Shame and Love, I make an exception for Peter Orner.
Orner seems to understand my proclivity for the longer tale because somewhere after the midpoint of his storytelling, he rewards me with a novella. A series of stories about Walt Kaplan, his wife, Sarah and their friends, Milt and Pearl and his best friend, Alf, who have lived the entirety of their lives in the beleaguered post-industrial town of Fall River, Massachusetts, Orner offers an intimate view of their lives.
The Fall River stories contain the details – a fly Walt smashed on the wall of the dumpy diner where he argues with his friend Alf every day, the legend of Fish Road, the one that heads out to the Jewish cemetery but is not on the map – the kind of trivial ruminations that a husband tells his wife while they’re getting ready for bed at night. I am reminded of the old saying, ‘god is in the details.’
When Walt & Sarah are dining on lobster with their friends, Milt & Pearl, at the Gang Plank — the place with the big reflective windows that don’t let you see out – I am captured by Orner’s reflection: “Only human beings could make a party out of boiling a few fellow creatures alive and then cracking their backs open.”
Thank you for that part, Peter, and for all the rest. It’s been a great road trip. You entertained me, challenged me and let me ponder. In the end I am Walt, waiting for the details of my death to unfold.