A persistent strain of loneliness runs through Peter Orner's new collection of short stories. Sadness, too. There's certainly a lot of sadness. Yet there's humor, plenty of laughs and dozens of compelling characters — likable couples, fascinating cheats, complex loners and people who will remind you very much of your poor brother, sister, aunt, uncle or cousin so-and-so.
There's just so much wedged into "Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge," the author's second story collection and fourth book of fiction. Here he delivers 51 stories — 51 and hardly a lull. Most of them run three, four or five pages. A handful are longer. Some are very short — a couple hundred words, maybe fewer.
Outside of Orner's book, a problem with similarly compact stories — known as short-shorts or flash fiction — is that too often they mainly call attention to the writer. "Look at me," they seem to say. "Aren't I brilliant, surprising, and bold? Aren't you dazzled?" It's exhausting.
Orner doesn't work that way. His devotion is to his characters, to storytelling, and, finally, to readers. The people in Orner's stories may be brilliant and surprising, or they may be grim and desperate, but they are never dull, never bland. They've led interesting lives. They have important things to say.
Often we encounter these characters in times that will transform or define them.
"The Divorce" follows a woman whose husband has died before they could sign the documents to finalize their split. They have divided their things. He has packed his boxes. Now she must sort out her feelings while participating in public rituals surrounding his death. At the funeral, she tries to weep.
"She wishes she came from the sort of people who fling themselves on caskets," Orner writes. "She saw that once, at the funeral of a Filipino coworker. Relatives clinging all over the casket like people on a raft."
The funny and curiously inspiring "Denny Coughlin: In Memory" describes a floor hockey rivalry among prison inmates. Denny, a star and leader in the game, chases down a puck too zealously and in the process mashes the guard against a wall. This will be the end of floor hockey, the other players know, as it may be the end of Denny.
Orner punctuates the moment: "But hear this, Coughlin, even on the floor, even getting his teeth kicked in … the man still spoke up for the game, for us: 'Puck's always live. Puck's only dead when it goes in the cage!' "
Nick Healy is the author of the story collection "It Takes You Over." He lives in Mankato.