“Maggie Brown & Others: Stories” by Peter Orner

Maggie Brown

Genre:  Literary Domestic Fiction
Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date:  July 2, 2019

A writer friend of mine, Diane Ledet, author of Bookwinked recommended this book to me.  I am grateful for her suggestion since she introduced me to an author who captures the human condition so well in just a few short sentences.  This is the sort of book I love to read. Regarding his 2001 book, “Esther Stories,” the NYT Book Review said that  “Orner doesn’t simply bring his characters to life, he gives them souls.”   The same could be said about his latest book, which includes a novella and 44 short stories.  And by short, I mean short.  Many of the stories are around two pages long.   Still, they get under your skin.  All of the stories tend to be melancholy with an emphasis on what it means to be alive.

The opening story, “The Deer,” is one of my favorites in the collection.  A girl watches a deer become stuck in the mud after a mountain lion chases it into a lagoon.  Feeling pinned, she sits down on a log and watches the tide rise, knowing it will eventually be over the deer’s head.   When the water is up the deer’s chest, she finally gets back on her bike and leaves.  She just couldn’t stand to watch anymore. As the reader, I wanted to jump into the pages and rescue the poor creature.  The story’s power comes from the girl’s helplessness in not being able to save the deer.  Most of us have been in that terrible position of watching someone we love suffer and/or die knowing that there is nothing we can do to give them aid. It’s that agony that Orner manages to nail with limited words—very impressive.

The bittersweetness of “Ineffectual Tribute to Len” drew me in immediately. A grad student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop drives all night in a snowstorm to meet one last time with his former boss, Len, who is now dying of AIDS.  The grad student hopes to write a book about Len because he was “one of the first people to notice something, anything, in me.”  I feel confident that all writers will relate to the student who can’t manage to move his manila folder full of notes into a novel.  Still, Orner brings hope into the story.  The student does manage to write a different novel than the one that he intended to write.  He honors Len’s spirit with no mention of the source of the book’s inspiration.   Without spelling it out, Orner demonstrates to his readers how something awful can transform into something positive, even if it is simply a novel of thankfulness.  

Interestingly the story that is my least favorite is the book’s title story, “Maggie Brown.’’  The short revolves around the narrator’s college girlfriend.  “A few years ago I saw her at a Minneapolis airport…She looked right at me, didn’t know me from Adam.”  That line alone perfectly describes the sadness one can feel when they have been forgotten.   My issue is that I didn’t get as obsessed with the characters as I did in the other stories.  Still, it is a very good short.  Maybe, I was simply expecting too much since it is the title story.

My only true criticism with the shorts is that most of them left me so connected to the protagonist that I wished each story was longer.  My wish was granted in the novella of interlinked short stories revolving around the forty-year marriage of Walter and Sarah Kaplan.  The Kaplans are a constantly squabbling Jewish American couple who own a furniture business in Massachusetts. Suddenly I am reading humor and by this time I needed to laugh. The novella can have a melancholy feel, but there are many moments of comic relief that take the edge off.  Orner’s dialogue is similar to the Jewish humor of Philip Roth.   He summarizes life’s annoying and painful moments while mixing it up with zingers.  Walter says, “I dreamed you buried me in the old cemetery out on Fish Road.” Sarah asks, “Fish Road where all the ancient Jews are?”  Walter replies, “You think we’re immune from becoming ancient Jews?”  I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary fiction and is willing to think about their own life because Orner will force you to reflect.  I for one will be seeking out his previous work.

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