Alexander Popper, the hero of Peter Orner's charming second novel, is a Chicagoan who's unlucky in love, uncertain about what to do with his life, and eager to escape his oppressive Jewish family. Sound familiar? There's a bit of Augie March in Alexander, and much like Saul Bellow's classic Chicago novel, "Love and Shame and Love" strives to capture the boyish urge to go at things freestyle.
Comparisons with Bellow go only so far, though. Bellow wrote oceanic paragraphs packed with philosophical detail, while Orner keeps his sentences trim and his chapters episodic. A more fitting model might be Raymond Carver, whose praises Alexander sings in the novel's early pages. "He's the poet of modern despair," he tells his girlfriend and future wife. "Drunken, laconic husbands. Lonely, cheating wives. You know, the gritty truths."
As "Love and Shame and Love" shifts back and forth in time, we discover how Alexander lived those truths. His grandfather was a World War II vet who struggled as a lawyer and husband, while his father was a would-be politico who couldn't crack the inner circle of Chicago's Democratic Party in the '70s. Money isn't a problem during Alex's childhood, as the Poppers settle into a tony Jewish enclave north of the city. But anti-Semitism and fractured marriages consume the clan, and the central question for Alexander is whether he's fated to inherit that legacy.
Orner details this drama in breezy chapters, some no longer than a paragraph. Still, the novel demands patience early on, because the threads connecting three generations of Poppers aren't immediately obvious. Once the tensions of infidelity and loss become clearer, though, it's easy to luxuriate in Orner's language, which blends poetic rhythms and a foreboding tone. Describing an eruption of cicadas around the city, he writes, "Summer and chaos in the trees. Carcasses rain from branches. Lawns wear coats of brittle, crunchable bodies. Pebbles of eyes stare up at the sky."
Such finery has its downsides. At times Orner's instinct for poetic gestures instead of more direct, Carver-esque ones obscures the emotional stakes for the Poppers. And his scenes of Alexander's adolescent angst can be overwrought: A catcher's mask becomes a leaden metaphor as he ponders "a world no longer his seen through the bars of a cage."
Yet within its prose-poem frame, the novel is remarkably earthbound and emotionally complex. Chicago's history, geography and racial tensions infuse its pages, and though the story ping-pongs across decades, its forward momentum rarely flags. Alex is cautioned as a boy not to "squander God's gift of Chicago," and he's forever concerned he will. But Orner has made the most of his opportunity, bringing a new perspective to a much-fictionalized city.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.