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
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.