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Peter Orner is a true writers’ writer, which is to say a writer writers complain to writers about readers not reading. His novel The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (a title, one senses, Orner had to fight hard to retain) ranks high among the best works of fiction about Africa ever written by an American, and his collection Esther Stories contains work to rival that of David Means and Tobias Wolff. Orner’s latest collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge (Little, Brown, $25), is bundled into four sections and includes more than fifty pieces of fiction — “stories” is too grand a word for many of them — and yet tops out at a slender 208 pages. In other words, this is one of the oddest, most diffracted story collections to come along in some time. Imagine Brief Interviews with Hideous Men written by Alice Munro.

Again and again in Orner’s work, someone tells someone else a story. Sometimes the stories are about someone telling a story about someone telling a story. His fiction has a vaguely tribal, incantatory feel. In one of Last Car’s more conventional stories, a man, for reasons he cannot explain, returns over and over to a Chinese restaurant in which a murder has taken place. Eventually the man has an inconclusive conversation with a waiter who has something to confess — and not the thing you think. If Orner wrote a piece of fiction about, say, a bank robbery, it wouldn’t be about the robbers, the teller, or the police. It would be a story about someone describing having once met the guy who sold the robbers their ski masks.

Throughout the book, Orner drops in one- or two-page fragments, chunks of seeming memoir, and stray bits of historical fiction (a story about Isaac Babel’s execution in Lubyanka prison, another about Mary Todd Lincoln’s difficulty sleeping). He bravely saddles these pieces with such please-don’t-read-me titles as “Spokane,” “1979,” “February 26, 1995,” and “Geraldo, 1986,” the last of which transforms Geraldo Rivera’s ill-fated spelunking of Al Capone’s vault on live television into an extremely funny, and bizarrely poignant, contemporary parable: “Maybe someone back at the station was thinking, Now at last we’ll get rid of this chucklehead. Geraldo looks as if he wants to eat the microphone’s afro.”

Orner’s sentences don’t pop and glitter. They’re impressive, but quietly so, like skywriting. Here is Orner setting a scene in which a mother has just learned that her son killed himself in prison:

Jean Alper at the kitchen table, Gastonia, North Carolina. September 1986. Tomorrow is tomorrow. The phone is on the floor. It’s ceased to repeat itself. There may be other sounds out the open kitchen window, but she doesn’t hear them. Someone might be mowing a lawn. She wouldn’t know.

And here is his deftly bleak evocation of a city park: “The tall trees, nobody playing tennis.”

The best name for Orner’s methodology might be “conservative experimentalism.” He does all the traditionally writerly hoop-jumping things — narrative, character, dialogue, denouement — extremely well, but with noticeable impatience. (“Tomorrow is tomorrow,” indeed.) One of Orner’s best new stories involves a couple who have lied to friends for so long about having escaped a legendary Boston nightclub fire (they’d in fact left the nightclub an hour before the fire) that the lie has isolated them from the truth of their feelings for each other. In another story, a husband dies before his divorce from his wife is made final. At the funeral, the widow thinks, “I said I wanted to be alone, not alone alone.” “Alone” and “lonely” are words that appear frequently in these stories, yet this doesn’t seem to be simple conjuration of literary mood; it feels more primal, more personally afflicted, than that.

“Goya,” Orner writes in another story, “was one of the few artists who truly understood the nature of everyday degradation.” Peter Orner, too. His characters suffer, but not for their creator’s pleasure and certainly not for ours. Orner’s dark stories become, in this sense, strangely affirming: keep out signage along the low, straight path toward alone alone.

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  • Simon Collinson

    Great reviews, thanks. Will have to check Orner’s work out.

    Just to let you know – the microfiche of page 83 appears to have been exported with bleed marks & InDesign metadata.

    • http://harpers.org/ Harper’s Magazine

      Thanks for the heads-up. This has been fixed.

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