We met Michael Epstein at a reading at The Norwich Bookstore last year and were recently in touch with him again. If you are looking for your next read, he has a wonderful blog called BookMarks, which is chock-a-block full of reviews and his own personal reading lists. When we invited him to be a guest for our Friday Reads feature, we were delighted to discover that he wanted to write about our friend Peter Orner’s upcoming release, Maggie Brown & Others, which is due out on July 2 from Little, Brown and Company.
Thank you, Michael, for this thoughtful review of Maggie Brown & Others. We were already looking forward to reading this book—now we really can’t wait!
Peter Orner’s new book, Maggie Brown & Others is superb. In 44 short stories and one novella, Orner introduces vibrant and vital characters in both mundane and exotic settings, and says to the reader, “Here’s life with all its complexities and beauties. See it and weep.”
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 in reading authors from Chekhov to Woolf, from Welty to Kafka. In one typically offbeat and fascinating chapter, Orner introduced Herbert Morris, whose book of poetry he had pulled from a free bin outside a used bookstore in San Francisco. I’ve now 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 summer camp counselor, “An Ineffectual Tribute to Len.”
In that story, the narrator, a cab-driving grad student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, looks back on his counselor with gratitude and sadness—“Len was one of the first people to notice something in me, anything in me.” The student vows to write a novel about Len who died young of AIDS, but he can’t manage to move from the manila folder full of notes to the novel. Ultimately, he decides to write a short Chekhovian short story. Orner writes, “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 precisely what Orner does throughout this entire volume, sketching a character, a location, a situation with a few quick brush strokes, 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 last 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 family members in an attempt to sort out the now vanished past and how it influences and even determines the present
And finally, we settle into the 100+page novella that concludes the volume, the story of Walt Kaplan, a life-long 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, every-day, life. That is Orner’s great skill.
In his “Notes For An Introduction” in Am I Alone Here?, Orner writes 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 & Others 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 our final chapter.
This is a wonderful book.