Weighty and powerful impressions


Short stories and vignettes have disparate themes, but are still connected in Peter Orner’s skillful writing.

In his new book, Peter Orner, author of the highly regarded novels Love and Shame and Love and The Second Coming of Mavala ShiKongo, as well as the acclaimed story collection Esther Stories, makes his much-anticipated return to the short form, gifting readers with a magnificent and moving mosaic of remarkable narratives.

Many of the stories and vignettes in Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge are an impeccable page or two in length, and this poetic attention to language and ability to compress, to linger astutely and affectingly in the essential moment rather than become overly and unnecessarily consumed by the “what next?” questions and concerns of plotting, is perhaps the greatest strength of Orner’s writing.

Last Car is a testament to the patient confidence and skill of this masterfully concise writer, and here, as with Esther Stories, even the shortest pieces in Orner’s second collection leave one with the sense that all we truly need to know of these characters, of their circumstances, plights and yearnings, is right there for us on the page.

Because of the range and volume of the selections in the book, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is a story collection that defies easy objective descriptions. In these pages we encounter Russian writer Isaac Babel’s final days ( Lubyanka Prison, Moscow, 1940), Geraldo Rivera’s humiliating encounter with Al Capone’s vault ( Geraldo, 1986), a paroled killer’s response to a letter from an angry citizen ( Nathan Leopold Writes to Mr. Felix Kleczka of 5383 S. Blackstone), a woman whose husband dies before their divorce can be finalized ( The Divorce), an unsolved murder that occurs in the restroom of a Chinese restaurant in a New England strip mall ( February 26, 1995), and a coming-of-age moment shared by a boy and his brother beneath the same Chappaquiddick bridge where Mary Jo Kopechne met her tragic end ( Dyke Bridge).

There is also a linked series of stories that revisit the fictional Kaplan family of Fall River, Mass., an array of expertly rendered characters introduced by Orner over a decade ago in Esther Stories (and who provide a recurring through-line of sorts for the book — as do several untitled and italicized single-paragraph selections that have the feel of memoir).

So yes, varied subject matter for sure, but Orner’s obvious infatuation with certain themes provides more than enough unifying cohesion and momentum to justify and explain the inclusion of each piece. For example, Orner is clearly a writer concerned with politics, external and personal, as well as the effects of place and time, memory and loss, hidden lives and secrets.

Throughout Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, Orner explores these common themes, using them to build bridges between these seemingly disparate narratives. Accordingly, however different these stories are superficially, one great triumph of this collection is that they somehow still feel quite connected and fused.

And regarding bridges, both metaphorical and actual, consider the following passage from the title story of the book:

“I drove the last car over the Sagamore Bridge before the state police closed it off. The Cape Cod Canal all atempest beneath. No cars coming, no cars going. The bridge cables flapping like rubber bands. You think in certain circumstances a few thousand feet of bridge isn’t a thousand miles?”

Like this bridge in this moment, the lengths of these stories seem irrelevant (and, for that matter, perfect) when one considers the power and weight of these essential glimpses Orner gives us. Taken as a whole, as the sum of its parts, this is a stirring and important book, one that will wash over readers and create a sensation similar to that of moving slowly through a museum, encountering masterpiece after masterpiece, those impressionistic paintings of which William Trevor speaks.

Skip Horack for The San Francisco Chronicle.

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