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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Read Local: Peter Orner's "Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge"

Posted By on Thu, Aug 8, 2013 at 11:14 AM


New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every other Wednesday for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area.

You should read Peter Orner's new story collection, Pulitzer Prize winning author Adam Johnson told me. A few weeks later, my friend and former SF Weekly editor, Anna Pulley, said the same thing.

I didn't need to be told a third time, but I would be, because Peter Orner is a revered, quiet figure among the San Francisco literati. He's received the important accolades, like the Guggenheim and Pushcart Prizes, and glowing reviews from the most esteemed outlets, including the New York Times, and yet his name will be unfamiliar to many readers.

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And that might just be what the writer wants, at least on some level. Orner fantasizes about being a reclusive writer, freed from the pressure of social media. His sound reasoning has much to do with the uncomfortable nature of self-promotion in the digital age, but perhaps there's something greater at stake here.

By keeping some distance, a modicum of obscurity and reclusiveness, Orner is able to see beyond the projected façade, the glossy Instagram photos and self-aggrandizing status updates, instead exploring a seemingly mundane existence, the kind littered with tragedy and festooned with magic. As a character in his new collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge asks, "Why do shadows dance when if you look directly at the people themselves -- not their shadows -- they aren't dancing?"

The answer is complicated. Through 50 stories, many of which are just a couple of pages long, the stuff of life -- divorce, maladies, nightmares -- comes together and moves apart, liberating and hindering, somewhat like memory itself. Consider "Grand Pacific Hotel, Chicago, 1875":

And the corridors themselves seemed to change every time she wandered down them. There were nights, early mornings, when she couldn't find her way back to her room. Even she changed -- moment by moment -- and this is why there are no safe harbors anywhere. Even our own bodies betray us, ever moment of every day. Even you people who understand nothing must understand this. Don't you see? Motion is where the loss is. If we could only be still. But then how to search? How to find?

And, of course, there's heartbreak. When it comes to intimate matters, Orner is nothing if not precise and delicate, but achieves a level of surprise that completely alludes other writers. In "Waldheim," a poor, deceased bookbinder wonders when his wife will join him, having scrimped and saved to purchase the double lot:

By his calculations Rachel must be getting on near a hundred and thirty, and he continues to marvel at the strength of her constitution and the progress of modern medicine while at the same time chastising himself for being lonely and wishing that it would end so that she would come to him.

This story deals with suspended time and family in a way not wholly dissimilar from Ambrose Bierce's 1890 "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," and yet Orner renders it anew. Rachel's fortunes have changed, and she simply chose to be buried elsewhere. Her husband's predicament -- that he shall be suspended in wait for eternity -- is both an absurd and poignant comment on marriage, presented in spare, beautiful prose.

Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is a remarkable, moving collection of short stories by a writer primed to be your next favorite author. Check out our interview with him here.

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Alexis Coe


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