Last Car Over…Peter Orner's New Book of Stories

I drifted about the house after finishing Peter Orner's latest book Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge mulling over the stories, and Joni Mitchell songs started playing in my head from the album Court and Spark (1973).  "All the people at this party / They've got a lot of style /They've got stamps of many countries / They've got passport smiles" (from "People's Parties"). "Passport smiles" is such a great image. You know how they are put on. Another image, in the song "Down to You," shows vulnerability: "…Clutching the night to you like a fig leaf." and in "Just Like This Train," the narrator says, "I used to count lovers like railroad cars." She perfectly captures longing, the feeling of being an observer, the feeling of searching for something. The link with Peter's book? Those are some of his themes as well, and like Joni Mitchell, he can give you the mood, feeling, and image with a vivid phrase, or a couple of sentences. Here's one from "Pampkin's Lament" (p. 53):
The knock was mousy but insistent. I first heard it in my restless dreams, as if someone were tapping on my skull with a pencil.
That image continues to tap inside my brain, along with the song. The tentative, but pleading knock. The hollow sound of the pencil is also reminiscent of taking a test and not knowing the answer, but trying to think of it while the clock is ticking.

From "The Vac-Haul" (p. 100):
Rudimentary biceps were beginning to rise between my shoulders and elbows like small loaves.
And a little spongy, too? A mixed kind of pride; maybe he's going to make something of himself, after all. Potential.
From "Occidental Hotel" (p. 8):
One of his hands lay across her stomach like a plump fish.
We can understand how she feels about this encounter just by the choice of imagery. He doesn't have to explain her disdain.
From "Harold Washington Walks at Midnight" (p. 176):
"…And his shoulders were stooped—bony, really," Martha said. "His trench coat looked like it was hanging off two doorknobs."
We've seen clothes hanging on doorknobs, but perhaps never in this context. Perfect.

Then there are the stories themselves. I had to read the first fifty pages lying down; they just knocked me over. You can't run away from death, here, but the stories are written about it from a different angle. These are not the mainstream hard-bitten reality stories that are most common in novels today. They have a little humor in the middle, such as the kids' game mentioned that has the funny, unwieldy name, "Kill the Guy with the Ball." 

The emotions are real, often heartbreaking, but in a good way. Most of the stories contain a character that is trying to muddle through, knowing there is something he needs to understand, but not quite knowing what it is, sometimes not even knowing there is a problem: one or other of the orders of ignorance. Oftentimes, there is a point to the story, but not a plot, exactly. In almost every occasion you are left with a surprising or beautiful last image to hold up to the light. My favorite story, only a paragraph long, has no title, it is on page 51 and is dated at the end "Chicago, 1969." It begins with an imagined retelling of an event that happened to the narrator as a baby, and winds up with a powerful comment by the now grown-up child. A fascinating structure as well as a moving story.

I think the fifty-two stories overall relate to this sentence from "Shhhhhh, Arthur's Sleeping" (p. 194): "Before I put on my other sock, I've doubted the entire day." Inevitably, each character will put on his or her other sock; they are often uncomfortable, vulnerable, but they are hopeful. And hate is tamped down, tempered often with love. Even when they do bad things they are not villains. And many seem to keep "wandering in circles" ("The Moors of Chicago" p. 187) even after the story is over.

The book is divided into four parts: Survivors, The Normal, In Moscow Everything Will Be Different, and Country of US, but for me the groupings are unimportant. I remember them as: memory stories; the Jewish relatives stories that rival the essays in Daniel Pinkwater's books (Chicago Days/Hoboken Nights and Fish Whistle); ones based on news or history; and fanciful ones. The book is quite a mix. Many stories are rooted in the Chicago area, and I slipped into these easily since they are related to the stories in his novel Love and Shame and Love and his first collection, Esther Stories (now rereleased with an intro by Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead). Several take place in Massachusetts and a majority are written in first person. As I read them, they felt so real that I had the uncanny feeling they were absolutely true.

Fiction. Nonfiction. Creative Nonfiction. Poems. Short stories. Flash. Microfiction. In a Creative Nonfiction class I took from Peter in 2011 at San Francisco State University, he said he didn't like categories. That it doesn't matter if it is fiction or nonfiction. That using labels like Flash Fiction doesn't help anything. That they are all simply stories.

If you are lucky, stories from Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, may continue to circle and hum in your head, even when they have finished on the page.


Lauren said…
I'm seeing him read from and talk about LCOTSB in a couple weeks. I'll be sure to tell you about it, of course.