On our last trip home to Michigan, my boyfriend and I took public transportation. Round-trip, this takes two buses, two trains, and two long layovers in Chicago. Clanking through the Gary rail yards and the Michigan trees, the porter announcing all those curiously beautiful names–Dowagiac, Kalamazoo, Owosso– the trip is slow, but presents a host of writerly pleasures. Consider the puffy-coated children in Union Station eating Hot Cheetos from the vending machine. Listen to the woman behind you managing her financial empire of gas money, cigarette money, grocery money. Enjoy the soothing tones of the man comforting his heartbroken daughter on the phone. She don’t need to be putting up with that bullshit anyhow. She ought to go up to the Kroger and get herself a nice steak.
Peter Orner’s latest short story collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, is a kind of literary Greyhound trip. There are 52 stories in this collection, most only a few pages long, and some only a paragraph. The stories are episodic, capturing a strange moment, a fleeting impression, or a difficult-to-articulate feeling. Despite their length, the stories are imbued with intimacy and compassion. These are snapshots of grief, regret, and wounds both romantic and familial. The cumulative effect is like overhearing a series of startling conversations. There’s a woman behind you telling someone on the phone how she found her boyfriend dead in the basement. There’s a man remembering the toddler who drowned in a pool of chemical runoff when he was a kid. You can’t help but be riveted to these stories, yet you never feel as though you have access to the entire thing, and just as you begin to know these voices, they stop talking.
Though these stories return again and again to Chicago and Fall River, Massachusetts, Last Car Over Sagamore Bridgespans a century and a half and much of the globe. Much of the stories deal with the quiet struggles of ordinary lives: a woman in Mexico City misses her sister who emigrated to Dayton, Ohio. A woman waits in San Francisco for her husband to come home from the war. Teenagers climb the Indiana Dunes. But Orner is also concerned with celebrity, and several historical figures inhabit the collection. The widowed Mary Todd Lincoln wanders the halls of a hotel looking at the shoes waiting to be shined. Ted Kennedy, a decade after Chappaquiddick (also revisited in Orner’s story “Dyke Bridge), struggles to make conversation with Fall Rivers’ head cheerleader. Isaac Babel walks down the halls of Lubyanka Prison imagining the home lives of his torturers. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley dreams of being locked out of a house, watching the shadows of the figures inside. At Orner’s most playful, a 17 year old supermarket worker with a joint and a hunk of cheese watches Geraldo Rivera open Al Capone’s secret vault at the Lexington Hotel.
Some of the multitudinous voices captured in Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge are woven together by common themes. The first of the book’s four sections, Survivors, is devoted to those observing gruesome and often untimely deaths, and provides some of Orner’s finest writing. In “Horace and Josephine”—who are recurring Fall River characters—the narrator remembers his aunt and uncle, jet set sophisticates (whose quippy dialogue zings like Fitzgerald), undone by financial ruin and old age. When the family takes them to see each other after two years in different nursing homes, the image is breathtaking: “[Horace] knew he was so close and tried to pull himself out of the seat, but couldn’t; so Josephine leaned into the car, and Horace dropped his head on her shoulder. Then she whispered something to him. Maybe she told him she’d meet him wherever he was going and not to worry, they’d be flush when they got there. Meet me by the roulette wheel in Monte Carlo, at Beaumont’s. I’ll be the one in the fox coat and white heels.”
It’s less clear at times what ties together the other three sections–The Normal, In Moscow Everything Will Be Different, and Country of Us. The question becomes more pressing as the book nears its final story: what does one do with all these fragments of life? What necessitates these stories being brought together? Like the last hours of the long train journey home, you’re aching to be back in the familiar, to get rid of all the noise and discomfort. There are all these voices, but what investment do you have in them, really? What will this eavesdropping tell you about your life or theirs? Still, Orner’s obsessions – grief, divorce, tumultuous family relationships, the meeting of the political and personal—resonate with tremendous empathy and wisdom. While the whole picture may be unclear, each of these tiny images is breathtaking.
By Kelsey Ronan