Peter Orner's new book, "Maggie Brown & Others" (Little Brown, release date July 2, 2019) is superb. In 44 short stories, many of them only 2 to 3 pages long, and one 106-page novella, Orner gently but firmly takes the reader by the hand, introduces vibrant and vital characters in both mundane and exotic settings, and says, "Here's life with all its complexities and beauties. See it and weep."
I loved this book so much that I stopped reading it with only a few pages left and took a three-day rest because I didn't want the book to end. Also (spoiler alert), I was grieving after Walt Kaplan, the main character in the novella, dropped dead of a heart attack while zipping up his pants in his modest house in Fall River on March 16, 1978. I needed the break because in only a few dozen pages, Orner had given me a portrait of a man, undistinguished and unaccomplished but a man who was alive to his wife, his friends, and his community. I was heartbroken when Walt died.
Orner is a professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth and the author of two previous novels, two story collections and a memoir, "Am I Alone Here?". In that book, he writes about what he has learned from authors from Chekhov to Woolf, from Welty to Kafka. In one typically offbeat and fascinating chapter, he introduced Herbert Morris, whose book of poetry Orner had pulled from a free bin outside a used bookstore in San Francisco. Based on that reference, I read Morris' poetry and found wonder and solace in his sketches of people in their "most intimate, unguarded moments."
It is this same ability to provide the reader with the intimacy of knowing a character in just a few sentences and being plunged into a situation that evolves in a few pages that is Orner's gift. The first section comprises 13 stories situated in California where drugs, mental illness, suicide, divorce and death provide a contemporary frame for the passing of time, the passing of people, and the sadness of life. In the nine stories in the section entitled "Lighted Windows," Orner leaves California for places that appear to be more autobiographical and associated with relationships — a brother who calls his sister after disappearing from the family for 12 years, various extra-marital experiences, and my favorite story in the collection, about a camp counselor whose influence on the main character, a cab driving grad student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is deep and life-changing ("Len was one of the first people to notice something in me, anything in me."). The grad student vows to write a novel about Len, who dies of AIDS in Chicago shortly after the night they spent driving around Chicago in a snowstorm, but he can't quite bring himself to move from the manila folder full of notes to the novel. Ultimately, he decides to write a Chekhovian short story, writing "All hail Chekhov. If done right, he tells a story that never ends. A story lurks. A story, a good story, is just out of reach, always. Wake up in an unfamiliar darkness, in a room you don't seem to recognize. Flip on the light. Nothing there .The last period of the last sentence of a story isn't a full stop; it's a horizon ..We're talking about the quest for infinity here .a story, one that ends but doesn't end, that's infinity, immortality right there."
And this is what Orner does throughout this entire volume, rapidly sketching a character, a location, a situation with a few quick brushstrokes, developing the complex lives of these characters in a mere page or two, and leaving the reader to reach their own conclusion about the outcome, the horizon that refuses to be defined in simple terms.
From "Lighted Windows," Orner moves to the next three sections of the book. The epigram that introduces one section is a quote from the poet Robert Creeley: "Turn left by the old house that used to be there before it burned down." How apt an introduction to Orner's world. The author takes his character back to his boyhood Chicago settings to revisit relatives, friends and nuclear family members in an attempt to sort out the now vanished past and how it influences and even determines the present. I found this section's stories to be totally engaging, perhaps because Orner, two decades younger than I, spent his youth and young adult years in the same settings that I did — the Chicago suburbs (yes, I'm one of those who remember the now long-gone but not forgotten, department store, Wieboldt's!), camp in northern Wisconsin, Ann Arbor, and Boston. His grandfather, his parents, his aunt Esther and Uncles Bernard, Norm, and Monroe (nee Morton) all appear, many leading lives overwhelmed by mental illness.
And finally, we settle into the 100-plus-page novella that concludes the volume, the story of Walt Kaplan, a lifelong resident of the crumbling New England town of Fall River, a furniture store salesman, the father of Miriam, the husband of Sarah, the best friend of Alf. One could not find a more bland character, and yet I felt deeply about Walt and his mundane, everyday, life. That is Orner's great skill.
In his "Notes For An Introduction" in "Am I Alone Here?", Orner writes about fiction that he is "drawn to certain stories because of their defiant refusal to explain themselves. Fiction isn't machinery; it's alchemy . A piece of fiction can have all the so-called essential elements, setting character, plot, tension, conflict, and still be so dead on the page that no amount of resuscitation would ever do any good." Orner's stories in "Maggie Brown & Friends" are not in need of any resuscitation. They are vibrantly alive, taking the reader to horizons that in their enigmatic unreachability, force one to think, to consider, to ponder who we are and who we might be able to become before the final sentence in the final chapter.
This is a wonderful book.
Michael F. Epstein reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He can be reached at www.EpsteinReads.com where you can find over 1,000 reviews of books to answer the question of, "What should I read next?".