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Book review: Discomforting stories of grip and grace

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Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, July 18, 2019

The young couple in Fowlers Lake, the second story in Peter Orner’s new book, know the cold will take their breath away when they plunge into the swimming hole, just as the sun slips below the treetops. They do it anyway, in spite — or because — of the punishing temperature. In his jail cell bed, the junkie in Naked Man Hides welcomes the chill that sets his body trembling, eschewing his blanket and marveling instead at the wonders of homeostasis.

The reader can relate. Maggie Brown & Others startles again and again, not in the way a fluke disaster startles, but in the way a mundane thing like cold water stings. It would be easy enough to stop reading. In theory. By nature, short stories lack the magnetic story arc of a well-crafted novel, and until the last two sections of the book, these stories are unrelated — and so brief they are finished before they can rightfully hold a reader hostage. But I kept leaping into the next one, like the couple in the swimming hole. I kept submitting myself to the pain, like the man in the jail cell.

A series of short short stories and one novella that probe ordinary moments cast in a more profound light by virtue of hindsight, Maggie Brown & Others seizes you repeatedly, with little relief.

In its first story, The Deer, a girl watches a deer become stuck in the mud after a mountain lion chases it into a lagoon. She doesn’t just see it happen. She sits down on a log and watches the tide rise, transfixed, until she can’t watch anymore.

The girl is pinned in place by forces she doesn’t quite understand, while at the same time sensing their significance, like so many of the characters to come: the couple whose decision to swim in a frigid swimming hole leads — incongruously — to a pregnant woman’s disappearance; a woman who refuses to take down the photos of her husband’s first wife; the man in the prison cell, astounded at the connection he feels to the two strangers in the bunk across from him; a young woman who permits an aging author to touch her collarbone; a man rubbing sunscreen on his ex-wife’s back on a trip to the beach (why they’ve been thrown together in this way, it doesn’t seem to matter); a man who begins calling his estranged sister in the last year of his life. On and on they come, a blur of characters passing too quickly for readers to orient ourselves to their lives — or is it we who are rushing past them, trapped in these moments? — but so vivid they shock some part of us awake.

Orner, who lives in Norwich and teaches English and creative writing at Dartmouth College, has earned critical esteem for his skillful character development in prior novels and short story collections including, Love and Shame and Love and Esther Stories. With Maggie Brown & Others he demonstrates once again a deftness in composing something rich and real out of shattered and scattered fragments. Like this one, from Stinson Beach, 2013:

“Gmnec?”

“What?”

“Get my neck?”

Not a question, an order, but shaped to sound like a question, which was Sammy all the way, except now he was happy to oblige, and he wonders, as he slicks both his palms down the contours of her neck, whether love sometimes comes down to this, orders posed as questions and how we react.

Or this one, from Erwin and Pauline:

Everybody was waiting to see if Pauline would show up for the funeral, and she did, with a small boy in tow. She wore a brown business suit and flat shoes. But she couldn’t hide that she was even more beautiful now, somehow. Maybe because I wasn’t quite a kid anymore. When she took off her glasses, her hazel eyes were wet. She wasn’t crying; it was as if she were storing up tears for later. Wishful thinking (we pretended not to notice the ring), but we couldn’t help but believe, if only for a moment, that the boy might be Erwin’s son. A lost son we hadn’t known was lost. The math didn’t work out at all. … The two of them didn’t come back to my grandparents’ house for cold cuts.

Not all of the fragments convey loss and pain. There are pockets of sly humor and surprising sources of warmth. Like “Garbage Day,” a one-paragraph chapter from the novella Walt Kaplan Is Broke.

“That smell, putrid, syrupy rot, fermenting in the bottom of cans, how greedy Walt is to inhale it,” Orner writes. “He stops the Lincoln in the middle of the street and gets out and huffs it up, the odor of his city, like smelling your own armpits, there’s pride there, a private pride, but pride...”

These moments are potent both in isolation and in the way Orner arranges them. That’s not to say they’re cohesive or unified — or that Orner likely wants them to be. In Walt Kaplan Is Broke, Orner describes Chicago — where he grew up — as “a city with no vantage point from which to experience it.”

Maggie Brown & Others has that same street-level feel. The characters elbow and bump into us and subject us to their odors and mutterings. We can’t get away from them. We don’t want to.

It is not the chill, after all, that we seek, but the chattering teeth and gooseflesh, these little testaments to our capacity for survival in a cold world.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.