Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge
“. . . masterful writing to be sure . . .”
The short stories contained in Peter Orner’s new collection Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge are rather like a tray of cupcakes baked in an uneven oven. Some are overdone and as a result rather dry. Others are perfect: warm and sweet and wonderfully satisfying. The rest are raw, gooey, and cold.
Such shaky quality control (not unlike that given Chinese baby formulas sold to foreign markets) inhibits the reader’s enjoyment and understanding. Some stories like “Railroad Men’s Home” spin out with great promise and great opening lines (“Henry’s enemy lived in the room next door.”) and ramp up for what appears to be a well-developed tale only to falter, abruptly ending a page or two later, as if the author had wearied in his undertaking and given up.
And then there are the quotation marks. Or lack of same. Which causes the reader to ask: In what MFA creative writing program from hell did the first critique group determine that these diacritical marks are passé? That only the old, the infirm, and the functionally illiterate need quotes around sentences in order to determine which represent human speech?
Because of a few very bad habits (that he seems more or less wed to) Mr. Orner’s work is of the head scratching variety of “modern” literature in which a story a paragraph long is given the same gravitas as one developed through several thousand words.
Because of this the collection, were it compared to a neighborhood, would be one in which mansions coexist with trailers to the detriment of both.
And yet . . .
Not for nothing has Peter Orner published his share of short fiction. Not for nothing has he won perhaps more than his share of awards.
There is a quiet poetry to his writing, a stark simplicity that merits discovery, demands attention. Like this from the story “Spokane,” in which the character Edward has committed suicide and his girlfriend discovers his body in the basement, a plastic bag over his head:
“. . . This was the way some people lived and died, and this was the way other people found out about it. Like I wasn’t surprised. And I knew—without knowing why or how—that he’d done this to himself. Edward in late morning, on the stoop. Edward sitting on the sidewalk with a long piece of grass in his mouth. Edward naked, kneeling. Edward in a wool hat with a tassel. Edward holding a bronze tomato, early evening. Edward eating cereal with a fork. Edward wrapped in plastic bags and rubber bands.”
There’s beauty in this, a memory of beautiful moments borne of ache and trauma. Edward with that stalk of grass between his teeth. Edward using a fork instead of a spoon. These moments, told in cinematic simplicity, allow the reader to inhabit the character, to feel the sun, as he/we lie in the grass, with the heat on our faces. To experience the laziness intermixed with hunger that settles for the fork.
This is masterful writing to be sure and “Spokane” is among the best of the stories collected here (would that it had quotation marks, but it’s still pretty damn great)—but this makes the reader all the more rueful when he comes upon this:
“Since his stroke, the old poet hadn’t been able to read his poems, much less write any new ones. Still, those few summers he had left, they trotted him out, a novelty act, stood him up at the podium. He’d stare forward, eyes wide, clearing his throat. His redheaded lover would hold him by the elbow and he’d do the best he could, retrieving half-remembered phrases out of the dark muddle of his brain, and the crowd, not knowing much more about him other than that here before them is what’s left of an important poet, would watch with reverence, even awe, and then, finally, fear.
“He asked: Why can’t our dreams be content with the terrible facts?”
Good as this brief passage is, it does not a complete story make. And yet it is there, entitled “The Poet.”
It could be easy enough to simply move on, to think of this as a clever beginning for a story, a strange shift from past to present tense and all. But by placing it here it is understood that Mr. Orner considers “The Poet” to be the equal of “Herb and Rosalie Swanson at the Cocoanut Grove” (the best story in the book—more on that in a moment), or the strange sadness of “The Divorce,” (A story about a man who begins the process of divorcing his wife, only to die soon after.
About the situation it is noted, “Gary, had he been here to laugh, would have laughed.”), or “Waukegan Story,” about a Russian who wanders off to America, about whom the man as the gas-station grocery says, “A refugee? To Waukegan? This armpit? Come on, love, sell me something else.”
When working at his best, as in “Herb and Rosalie,” Mr. Orner has the gift of showing us ourselves in the characters he creates. As Herb spends half his life telling the false tale of he how and his wife Rosalie (spiffy in her red dress) escaped Boston’s Cocoanut Grove fire alive through a simple stroke of fate—only to have his wife begin to embroider the tall tale more, further interweaving into the tapestry of his myth (they had, in fact, left the place an hour before the fire due to Herb’s indigestion) with textured threads of her own—the tale resonates both with the fanciful stories that each of us tells and with the ways in which intimate couples complete, compete with and challenge each other.
But while the best of the stories are the longer ones (nothing in this volume could honestly be described as “long”), to say that all of the brief stories are universally but shards, concepts for something better and longer is actually unfair. Some do satisfy.
“Geraldo, 1986” is one of these. Just three pages long, it shows what can be done with a couple handfuls of words.
It is the story of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault. It manages to stir the memory of a live television event at its nuttiest, of Geraldo at his most inflated (“I feel like Jeremiah walking among the ruins,” Mr. Orner quotes him as saying and—mirabile dictum!—quotation marks tell the telling), and of the importance of television in our lives, sometimes just as a place-marker, as noise. And what starts as high comedy melts most beautifully into poetry at the end.
The point is the cupcakes. The hope on the part of the consumer that the thing offered will be worthy of consumption.
In terms of stories like these, the hope is not for uniformity of length or even for strict adherence to the rules of grammar, but that each thing presented be worthy, complete. Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is an uneven collection to be sure, but is well worth the perusal. The reader willing to take the time considering these tales individually and collectively will find many rewards, some perfectly satisfying, some blessedly sweet, some that will even leave you begging for the recipe.