Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

by Peter Orner

reviewed by Mia Lipman

Short stories–the rite of passage for every MFA student, the inevitable debut collection–turn from bonbons to weapons in the expert hands of Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and their ilk. These authors are not failed novelists whose ideas are too narrow for a magnum opus; they’re the grand wizards of a completely different art form, and Ms. Munro has a freshly minted Nobel Prize to prove it. Now joining their ranks is Peter Orner, whose second book of stories reveals a level of precision and craft that makes me hope, despite his two very fine novels, that he keeps writing short forever.

Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge lightly knots together 51 pieces ranging in scope from a single moment to a series of them, each as fully realized as a bullet. Reciting plot points won’t reveal much: Herb and Rosalie Swanson tell the same story over and over again at parties; Allie goes swimming with a bevy of boys; Walt Kaplan listens to his daughter thump up and down the stairs. Orner’s gift lies in stripping all of these people bare through their minutia. Suspension of disbelief is not an issue here: These are people, never inventions, and you’re gently peering through the window as they do their broken, beautiful human thing.

The experience is raw and familiar and so well orchestrated, it doesn’t really matter where you dip in. But if you do read Last Car cover to cover all at once–and you probably will, because putting this book down would be like hanging up the phone mid-conversation–then you’ll get the added pleasure of recognizing a few old friends when they stop by for a second or third visit.

You wouldn’t think someone could haunt you with a life that spans just a few lines, but Peter Orner can. He can tell you an entire ghost story, and you won’t stop believing it until the next welcome specter chases it away.

Little, Brown and Company, August 2013

ISBN-10: 0316224642

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Mia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, founding executive editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of LitFix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.

Almost Gone by Brian Sousa

Brian Sousa’s debut book, Almost Gone, is a collection of intricately linked stories spanning four generations of Portuguese Americans. In the opening story, a young man named Scott has gone to Brazil, attempting to escape his marriage and his grief over the loss of a child. Over the course of the stories, we hear from Paulo, Scott’s father, and from Paulo’s father, Nuno, Nuno’s wife Helena, and, in a surprising turn, Helena’s first love, Mateo. Grounding many of the stories is Catarina, an enigmatic young woman who arrives in America without any English, and takes up residence in a small house next door to Helena and Nuno. There, she becomes the object of desire not only of the married Paulo, but also of his aging father Nuno, who watches her daily through the blinds. Nuno’s longing for the much younger Catarina is one of the many manifestations of solitude and unrequited love in this moving, tenderly orchestrated book.

If you put this collection down and come back to it, it’s easy to forget how all of the stories intersect, but one should resist the urge to flip back and forth, trying to tie everything together. That’s because it all does come together in the end, beautifully, and part of the pleasure of reading Almost Gone is the flash of recognition one feels throughout. You feel entirely immersed in a bullfight in Spain, which seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the book, only to come to realize how this event leads to others. Time feels compressed within each story, but the time of the book as a whole is expanisve despite the relative brevity of the collection (the book weighs in at well under 200 pages). In the final story, we return to the beach with Scott, to the pivotal event that has led him to flee his wife and his life back in the U.S. The story is painful in its distillation of emotion, and, like the best of these stories, hovers between suggestion and straight narrative, leaving the reader with a feeling of uncertainty.

In the style of Peter Orner’s accomplished Esther Stories, Sousa manages to make almost every story a stand-alone piece, while constructing a whole that feels, in the end, like an exquisitely rendered novel.

Tagus, Feb. 2013  ISBN-13: 978-1933227450

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Reviewed by Michelle Richmond, New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog