Little, Brown ($24.99)
by Kate Petersen
Trying to describe all that Peter Orner’s Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge contains is a bit like trying to summarize the contents of one of the photo boxes I found while helping my parents clean their garage this summer: sweet but impossible. These are universal boxes, aren’t they? Unshuffled decks of younger everybody, great-greats you never met, lovers your folks mentioned in passing (or never mentioned). Some faces reappear. Others turn up just once, posed under a giant boulder or funny hat. No, no one knows who that is. And yet they all look up at you through various years of fade and crease, almost asking for something.
Last Car seems to take such a memento box as its organizing principle. Even the titles of the collection—street names and places (“Detamble,” “Spokane”), years (“1979”) and detailed scenarios (“Fourteen-Year-Olds, Indiana Dunes, Late Afternoon”)—read like notes jotted on the back of old snapshots. No accident, this: Orner’s stories exult and serve remembering and the heartbreak that so often attends it.
Structured much like his earlier Esther Stories, Orner’s latest collection is organized into four sections of the compressed flights that are his métier: “Survivors,” “The Normal,” “In Moscow Everything Will Be Different,” and “Country of Us.” The Chicago and Fall River sides of the family we met in Esther Stories and Love and Shame and Love are here again, their now-familiar voices forming the book’s backbone, anchored by the presumed “I” of Alex Popper. But Orner casts his net wider, too, inhabiting the mind of Abraham Lincoln’s grieving widow, a Bulgarian émigré in Waukegan, and Isaak Babel inhabiting Babel’s executioner, in a matter of pages. This might be jarring if Orner didn’t pull off such costume changes so well, and if they didn’t feel so true to life.
The other common thread that binds these stories is that they almost all assume the posture of remembering (or reliving). Not that this is a book of still lifes. There is true violence here: a mobster is beaten to death by prison guards during a game of floor hockey; a grisly murder takes place in the bathroom of a roadside restaurant, and a customer can’t stop returning to the scene; a man buries himself alive in his own home, leaving his lover to discover him. Even smaller domestic moments pulse with a desperate bass line, a seething longing to get out from under your own past. “What is hoping,” one woman asks herself, “if it isn’t waiting?”
And what is remembering, but another sort of waiting? It can also be a way of asking what happened—or, as is more often the case for Orner’s characters, what didn’t happen. As a bored teen lifeguard laments, “This job—and how much else?—is one long unrescue.” By the time one arrives at this line, the question of rescue has started to nag the reader: whose rescue is this book attempting; and from what? These voices, taken together, are clearly warning us of something. “Even you people who understand nothing must understand this,” Mrs. Lincoln thinks. “Don’t you see? Motion is where the loss is.” Is that our warning? To stay still?
It’s tempting to look for answers in the bigger-than-life political personalities and histories Orner brings to life. As a native Chicagoan, he has plenty of material to work with: Mayors Daley, Washington, and “Fighting Jane” Byrne all appear here alongside lowly campaign operatives, cold-war foreign aid workers, and a broken Ted Kennedy bellowing the “last gasp of the sixties.” “There were countless other things,” says the narrator, “but doesn’t everything, in one way or another, come down to politics? In my family, politics isn’t blood sport, it’s blood itself.”
This book, however, doesn’t come down to politics—perhaps because politics, the intrigue and disappointment of it, requires a bigger canvas. Instead, the politicians in Last Car seem more like landmarks that confirm, yes, we were here. They stand for a certain way to be loyal; they recall and regret as much as the next guy.
And boy, do they regret, as when Popper recalls gleefully stomping on a kite his father made him, that “small attempt approximating love.” Regret can be a way of reading one’s life back in search of intelligence to act on. But in Last Car, all this remembering and regret rarely triggers any forward action; Orner’s characters wish so badly to be back there and then that they seem, collectively, to have willed the present into remission. Yet some of the most interesting moments in this book occur when remembering collides with the present to create dramatic havoc: An old man on a San Francisco bus speaks and becomes the narrator’s dead Uncle Horace; the kite-stomper steels himself, saying, ”In the meantime, we had to live.”
This overwhelming immersion in past after past carries, for a reader stuck in the present, the bittersweet weight of watching a loved one sleep: it’s an intimate experience, but one you can’t quite share. These stories are intimate, yes, but they also hold the reader at a certain distance, one that seems to come from an authorial watchfulness. Narrative moves like rhetorical questions and armchair first lines—“Call these the meditations of an overweight junior lifeguard watching an empty lake”—often prevent the reader from forgetting that she is witnessing someone else remember. In the world of Peter Orner’s fiction, remembering is a sacred, but finally private, act.
That push-pull drives this book: these stories want us to remember, sometimes desperately, while reminding us that we can’t, not quite. We can imagine, console, listen, but ultimately, this is not our garage. Perhaps that’s the warning: Don’t touch. Just look. A warning that gives Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge its sorrow and power, sending us back to our own sordid and lovely memories, survivors now of other people’s pasts and our own.