With two novels and two collections of short stories under his belt, Peter Orner delivers a fifth book that manages to topple expectations and resist classification. “Am I Alone Here?” comprises 41 essays which blend personal recollection with literary appreciation. “Think of this as a book of unlearned meditations that stumbles into memoir,” writes Orner in his introduction in an attempt at clear-cut categorization.
We can go with this self-deprecatory summation and weigh it against the book’s zippy subtitle “Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live.” More useful, though, and far more rewarding, is to forget labels, delve inside, and allow each piece with its fusion of touching reminiscences, incisive close-readings and candid revelations to speak for itself.
Orner’s first essay paves the way for what lies ahead. He describes sitting in a hospital cafeteria and overhearing gossiping doctors. Surrounded by illness, he starts to ruminate on dying, which in turn leads to more joined-up thoughts on Chekhov and his treatment of death in his stories — “tiny, but monumental” dramas. Orner’s steppingstone structure is as compelling as his personable approach, and we eagerly follow his stray observations and analytical lines of inquiry.
There is more of the same in later pieces. In one, he recalls how the pain of being separated from his daughter for five weeks was amplified by one of John Edgar Wideman’s tales about missing children. In another, he compares the “Balkan-like loathing” between his father and aunt to similar sibling conflict in a Saul Bellow story.
And in one of his meatier pieces, Orner splices condensed episodes of his stay in Prague in 1999 with fugitive reflections on that city’s famous son, Kafka.
One or two novels come under discussion, but Orner’s main focus is the short story. He elegizes James Salter and eulogizes Eudora Welty; he reads John Cheever in Albania, Julian Barnes at a red light, and Isaac Babel in his garage. Punctuating his evaluations of work by famous names and less well-known practitioners are maxim-like views (“Stories fail if you read them only once,” “Literature isn’t rankable”) and bursts of infectious enthusiasm for reading (certain books are so good that “finishing is agony”).
Along with literature, Orner encompasses his native city of Chicago and his adopted city of San Francisco, his divorce and his early years. Pervading the whole book, however, is his difficult relationship with his late father. In bittersweet flashbacks, Orner recounts calling him on Father’s Day (and “never answering the phone when he called”), visiting him in a rehabilitation center and, in time, attending his funeral.
Early into “Am I Alone Here?” Orner declares that, for him, all stories are fiction, and that the only important question is: “Does it rattle the soul or not?” A handful of Orner’s shorter pieces add up to little more than insubstantial sketches but for the most part his writing charms, entertains, illuminates, and, yes, rattles the soul.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Am I Alone Here?
By: Peter Orner.
Publisher: Catapult, 316 pages, $16.95.