In “Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge,” Peter Orner, author of the highly regarded novels “Love and Shame and Love” (2011) and “The Second Coming of Mavala ShiKongo” (2006), as well as the acclaimed story collection “Esther Stories” (2001), makes his much-anticipated return to the short form 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.
In his 1989 interview with Paris Review, William Trevor — elder statesman of Irish literature, as well as one of our greatest contemporary writers of short fiction — provided this response when asked for his definition of a short story:
“I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.”
An explosion of truth. If, as writer and critic Randall Jarrell once quipped, a novel is indeed “a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it,” the creators of short stories often, and perhaps typically, aspire for something more gemlike in their effect upon the reader. With “Last Car,” Orner has created 51 such carefully carved moments (in a book just under 200 pages in length), a mix of contemporary and historical pieces that provide snapshots of an impressive range of compelling places and characters.
Because of the range of the selections in the book, “Last Car” defies easy 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 infatuation with certain themes provides more than enough cohesion to justify and explain the inclusion of each piece. For example, Orner is clearly a writer concerned with politics, both external and personal, as well as the effects of place and time, memory and loss, hidden lives and secrets.
Throughout “Last Car,” 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 when one considers the power of these essential glimpses Orner gives us. Taken as a whole, this is an 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 Trevor speaks.
Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge: Stories
Little, Brown, $25