“Even the smallest thing has something in it which is unknown,” wrote Gustave Flaubert in a letter to Guy de Maupassant. It’s something Peter Orner could have written, too.
Peter Orner’s new short story collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, contains some of the smallest things. Fifty-one stories, some only a paragraph long, many with only a whiff of a plot. You think, Geez, I could devour one of those on a bus ride. Not true, at least not with Orner’s work, because the really good stories, despite their length, are big, universal, with Orner working it and working it, until he hits the gold vein of the unknown.
In “Grand Pacific Hotel, Chicago, 1875,” a story that is not quite a page long, Mrs. Lincoln wanders the hotel’s corridors at night. She’s looking at the shoes lined up in the hallway, empty, ghost-like. Some nights, the corridors seem to change and she can’t find her way back to her room. “Even she changed—moment by moment—” and then the story opens up, moving beyond Mrs. Lincoln. Orner changes up the narrative distance, invokes the second person, yanking the reader by the collar, as if to say, Listen up: “and this is why there are no safe harbors anymore. Even our own bodies betray us, every moment of every day. Even you people who understand nothing must understand this. Don’t you see? Motion is where the loss is. If we could only be still. But then how to search? How to find?” Movement, then, is nothing less than a mortal act.
So many stories, so many settings—Chicago, Buffalo, Wyoming, Spokane, Boston, North Carolina, Mexico City, Lincoln, Nebraska, Minneapolis, Boston, Wyoming, Moscow, Illinois—so many different eras. Themes knit the stories together: family, death, politics, death, memory, and the significance of story and storytelling itself.
In the title story, “Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge,” Walt is talking to his daughter, who is upstairs.
I’m remembering things, which is hard work. You think remembering things is a peanut, Peanut?”
Lot of things. For instance the hurricane of ’38, when I, your father—
You think a story dies?
(Her little mouth breathing through the keyhole.) Five hundred times I’ve heard that same story.
At some point, maybe around story #16, you begin to feel as if Orner has cornered you and is saying, “Hey, you. What the hell do you think is a story, anyway? Can’t it be the barest of bare bones? What sort of lame-ass expectations have you brought to the form?” It seems, at least to me, Orner wants to liberate the story from expectations and wake up the reader to all its possibilities.
The superglue of this collection is language. The compression of it—the pressure to say a lot with a little. And also American vernacular, which is a compression, of sorts, as well. Blunt, short sentences, colloquial diction that is humorous and alive and startlingly poetic with its rhythms and sounds. Orner has tuned his ear to it, and many of his stories sing with it. In fact, the epigraph of the collection echoes Flaubert’s, but with an important difference—its informal diction: “It’s over me like a ton of water, the things I don’t know.” (A quote from Gina Berriault’s short story, “Around the Dear Ruin.”)
In “The Val-Haul,” the narrator, a kid home from college for the summer, works with Larry Phoebus, who drives the city’s expensive vacuum truck around town. For hours, they’ve been in the truck listening to the radio reports about a woman who opened fire in a school. Larry never talks, and there’s a lot of speculation as to why. “Love, Boland said, what else is new under the sun? Only a woman could numb a guy like that. I hit the mute button myself for a couple of years after my first divorce.” In “Waldheim,” Rose refuses to be buried next to her husband at Waldheim. “It wasn’t that she hadn’t loved him. She had. His dumbo ears, his monologues from the toilet.” Uncle Horace in “On the 14,” a man who milked all his relatives out of money, gets off the bus and says good-bye to the narrator: “Sayonara, turkeyboy.”
By the end, this collection, a slim 195 pages, balloons into so much more: so many characters, so many luminous stories that suggest more—a ton of water—and the distinct, humorous, exuberant voices that are talking, as the character, E.J. says, “normal with a touch of nuts.”