Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

By Peter Orner

(Little, Brown and Company, $25, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Peter Orner, who turned 45 this year, is a University of Michigan grad who also has a law degree and an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Born in Chicago, he now lives in Marin County, Calif., where he is a volunteer firefighter and teaches writing at San Francisco State University. Critics have raved over his earlier books, which include  “Esther Stories,” “Love and Shame and Love” and “The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo,” which he  set in Namibia, where he lived in the 1990′s. He has edited two non-fiction books, “Underground America” and  “Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives”  published by McSweeney’s/ Voice of Witness, an imprint that uses oral history to raise awareness of human rights crises. Orner’s work has also appeared in many major publications, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Granta, McSweeney’s and Best American Stories. His many awards include the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes.

What is this book about?

As someone who spends a lot of time on Cape Cod, the title of this collection caught my eye. But it is not an homage to sand dunes and salty air on the Cape, although one story involves the Chappaquiddick bridge and another an impending hurricane.  Instead, it is a collection of 51 stories, some quite short, such as a single paragraph,  set in locales as diverse as Chicago, Mexico and the Czech Republic. The places that Orner is most interested in exploring are the human heart and mind; his wisdom, wit and curiosity about human nature makes him an ideal guide.

Why you’ll like it:

Orner wins praise for crafting intriguing characters and situations with a mastery of language, and he loves the short story form. Here are some thoughts he shared with Tin House, a literary journal:

“. . . I always get a little irritated by story collections that don’t contain stories that are different from each other.  . . . The sort of collection where you always know where you are. I like to think of a collection as exactly this: a collection of individual souls who may or may not have anything to do with each other, but they’re human and have some of the same preoccupations and worries and desires and fears. Say you’re walking down the street in a city where you couldn’t possibly know everyone, and yet what if you could? What if for every different person you walked by, you got into their heads, began to understand what makes them tick – all their common expectations, all their common disillusionments?  We’re all more connected than we ever realize.

…I think a lot of people, myself included, walk around numb a lot of the time. Stories unumb, if they’re doing their job. I confess to wanting—trying to—to put the screws to people. If a story doesn’t startle a reader out of complacency, it’s not much of a story.

“At the same time, I think we’re all a little afraid of melodrama or sentimentality. As is these things aren’t part of life, you know? But these things are as erratic and inconsistent as everything else in life. The thing is not to overly manipulate. Too often stories guide us to some emotional endpoint. I guess I try and avoid this with everything I’ve got.”

What others are saying:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month review for August says: “Peter Orner’s exquisite second collection of stories rambles across time and place, from postwar 1947 to 1978 to 1958, from Chappaquiddick to Chicago to the Czech Republic, each exposing a small, intimate moment. Like an uncomfortably candid photograph  . . .  the stories are finite and tightly framed, some just a page or two. Some are whimsical, some sobering, and most conclude with a “wow” moment that requires a pause–to reflect on the horror or beauty of the story, or the bravado of the writer. In one of the strongest pieces, a boy-girl conversation about an ex-lover turns unexpectedly chilling, ending with the perfect closing line: “I said don’t touch me.” From a frightened dad suffering a “permanent state of mourning” to the “childless couple” murdered in their garage to the brothers looking back on the day they fished beneath the infamous bridge at Chappaquiddick, Orner’s characters are raw, exposed, often sad, and the dialogue conveys the uncomfortable sense that you’re spying on deeply personal conversations.  . . . Orner deserves a place among those who are bringing the short form back to new artistic heights.

Booklist says: “Orner is an undisputed master of the short short story . . . a form that even shapes his novels. . . . The 51 distilled tales in this fizzing, chilling, and incisive collection are rich in emotional intricacy, drama, and devilish humor. Also in high evidence is Orner’s fascination with fractious marriages and families under pressure—especially in beautifully rendered stories set in his native Illinois—and his gift for a touch of evil. A wife stands by her Bernie Madoffish husband. A man compulsively returns to a restaurant where a murder was committed. A father barely escapes a hurricane with his daughter. A woman recounts her lover’s disappearance and macabre reappearance. A woman in Mexico City misses her sister, who is out of reach in Ohio. With an eye to history and the mythic nature of public figures, Orner imagines Isaac Babel’s last moments and the struggles of Russian immigrants, the Kennedys, and Chicago mayors. This is a book of alchemical concentration, microcosmic resonance, arresting surprises, and stubborn tenderness. “

Says The New York Times Book Review: “In each of his books, Orner’s crystalline sentences and his ability to pay close and sustained attention to small moments transform the ordinary elements of each story into an even more astonishing whole…every story in Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is excellent, incisive, moving…A reader could dip into this book anywhere, go for a walk, and come back later to be moved differently. “

“In his second story collection, Orner  . . . fires jewel-toned shards of fiction into a stunning whole. These tales, many of which are as short as a paragraph, jump back and forth between Fall River, Mass.; Chicago; Russia; the Czech Republic; South Dakota; and other places, as well as skipping across decades. Though most stand alone, several feature the relatives of Horace and Josephine Ginsburg, a family’s “famous once-hads,” whose failed Ponzi scheme ruined their relatives and the whole town. Divided into four parts—“Survivors,” “The Normal,” “In Moscow Everything Will Be Different,” and “Country of Us”—the collection explores the heartache of the past; many stories feature men trying to make sense of the confusing adult world they inhabited as children. Perhaps the most tangible example is the title story, in which Horace’s brother-in-law Walt Kaplan—a daydreaming furniture salesman in 1947—ruminates on the time in 1938 when he made it over the Cape Cod Canal just ahead of a hurricane. Impermanence and longing pervade the collection. In “Fourteen-Year-Olds, Indiana Dunes, Late Afternoon,” one character “rises and stands in the shallow water and faces the beach as the waves break upon the shore, only to fall back toward her,” just as Orner returns over and over to these crystallized moments,” says  Publishers Weekly.

Says Library Journal:  “Orner . . . once again shows himself to be a master of compression. These stories, as short as a page and no more than four or five pages at most, form a constellation of key moments in the lives of an extended family of secular Jews with retail establishments and a penchant for local (i.e., Chicago) politics. One of the book’s four sections takes its title from Chekhov’s play, Three Sisters: “In Moscow Everything Will Be Different.” Just as Chekhov’s titular sisters never stop talking about Moscow but likewise never get there, Orner’s characters have their own personal “Moscows”—the events in their lives that they cannot get past, that they must continuously relive and retell, like the father who rescues his daughter in a hurricane or the man who may or may not have witnessed a fire at the Coconut Grove Hotel. VERDICT Collectively, these events take on a mythic aspect that makes them linger and coalesce in the reader’s mind. Perhaps by virtue of their length, Orner’s stories force the reader to pay attention to those telling details, to unravel the sentences for all they are worth, and they are worth a lot.”

When is it available?

Don’t be the last one over to the Downtown Hartford Public Library, where this book is on the shelves.

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