A writer whose restlessness comes through in his stories


For the Valley News

Published: 07-18-2019 10:00 PM

The world may have lost a future lawyer the day Peter Orner, then studying to become a criminal defense attorney at Northeastern University, first tuned out his professor’s lecture and worked on some creative writing instead.

But the world also gained a devoted storyteller — and, the more time Orner spent honing his new vocation, the more he realized that stories were the main thing he’d liked about the law, anyway.

“Do you know that? That the law is full of stories?” Orner asked this week, in his writing studio in downtown White River Junction’s historic Gates Briggs Building. It was a sparsely decorated office, filled with boxes of books, a desk and not much else, but it’s a fitting workspace for Orner, who teaches English and creative writing at Dartmouth College. Orner’s new short story collection, Maggie Brown & Others, embraces a similarly minimalist style, one that New York Times book critic Dwight Garner praised for its ability to build “piers rather than bridges.”

“Look,” Orner said. Picking up an old clothbound law book from the nearby bookshelf, and opening it up to a random page, the Chicago native read from the passage his finger landed on: A man had taken a woman out to the theater.

“See? A story,” he said. Later on in that case, he riffed, “maybe so-and-so dies, and everyone’s upset because all the money was left to the poodle.”

Orner closed the tome and placed it on his desk, where it joined a sprawl of other texts: books by Joan Didion and Muriel Spark, a copy of Ploughshares literary magazine, some very sturdy-looking notebooks of various sizes, a brown napkin scrawled with green ink, the Torah.

“I buy one of these every time I see them,” he said, picking up the smallest notebook. Hardcover is a must, he added, because he often writes while walking. Lately, he’s been finding inspiration from pacing the village streets, walking up and down the hills around downtown.

“I guess I’m kind of restless. I always have to be on the move, always in motion,” Orner said. And, aside from roughly 15 years teaching at San Francisco State, Orner has bounced around a lot in his 50 years: Before moving to Norwich last year, Orner — along with his wife, best-selling author Katie Crouch, and their two young children — lived in Namibia as a Fulbright scholar, where he based one of his novels, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. Prior to that, he lived and worked all over the Midwest, plus Massachusetts, plus Mexico, plus eastern Europe. There are a lot of places he’s lived for no longer than a year or two — maybe not long enough to put down real roots, but long enough to get the lay of the land, and to be haunted by it after he leaves.

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Perhaps this helps make Orner a writer who, in the words of his Dartmouth colleague Alexander Chee, exists “in conversation with the world.” Chee, a noted novelist and essayist and associate professor of English and creative writing, wrote in an email that Orner is “both deeply committed to writing about American life and yet is a writer who belongs to the world.”

Like Orner, Maggie Brown is a collection that always seems to be in motion. Its stories are short, sometimes really short, less than a page. Even the novella-length section at the end of the collection is sliced thinly, into vignettes. It’s not so much that this brevity feels restless, exactly, because that makes Orner’s writing sound less controlled than it is. It’s more that the rhythm of the collection is one of a rapid, ragged heartbeat. We rarely stay in one story long enough to wonder when it will end.

Orner’s body, as if hearing talk of its own restlessness reminded it of its confinement to an office chair, started fidgeting. He uncrossed and re-crossed his legs, shifted his weight around and eyed the office window. He chuckled at himself.

“That’s just where the stories are for me. Outside, in the world,” he said, gesturing. The view, which overlooks a parking lot whose daily comings and goings Orner watches with fascination from three floors up, offers glimpses into the kinds of stories he likes to tell — stories that are, broadly speaking, about working-class people with vibrant inner lives who are just trying to make it work, whether through a sickness, a séance, a drive through a snowstorm, or the fact that even the happiest of marriages must, inevitably, end.

A good story doesn’t have to end, though. Not really. That’s part of what Orner likes about the form.

“There’s something about the compression of a story, the compression of a whole life in seven pages, that’s exciting and challenging for me,” he said. Because humans are storytelling creatures — because stories are so essential to how we relate to one another, and how we process our experiences — “they’re much more representative of how we live,” compared to a novel, he added, paraphrasing his late friend and teacher, Andre Dubus.

Orner — or rather, his self-styled narrator — directly grapples with the endlessness of stories in Ineffectual Tribute to Len, one of the longest and strongest pieces in the new book. As the title suggests, it’s Orner’s attempt to memorialize his strange, sweet, salt-of-the-earth friend, who died of complications from AIDS:

Novels, by nature, end, and Len doesn’t end. Ah, but — it occurred to me only just the other day — what about a story? The whole time it’s been stories. Stories about everything and everybody while ‘saving’ Len for the whole enchilada waiting for me beneath the sheets. All hail Chekhov. If done right, he tells us, a story never ends. A story: lurks. A story, a good story, is just out of reach, always. Wake up in an unfamiliar darkness, in a room you don’t seem to recognize. Flip on the light. Nothing there. It’s your room again. But didn’t you feel a presence in the dark? The presence of someone you once knew? Someone you once loved? All these years I’ve been deluding myself, carrying around this folder as if one day it would grow covers and a binding. So simple, Len’s a story.

The passage is epiphanic, but quietly so; it’s the kind of moment Chee loves in an Orner story, a moment that “somehow embraces silence,” he wrote, adding, “There’s a phrase I recall used to describe Willa Cather’s technique, ‘quiet thunder,’ and I think of that as Peter Orner.”

Ineffectual Tribute to Len, like the rest of Maggie Brown, is officially fiction. But that folder he mentions — that’s real. It’s battered and yellow, and holds some 20 years’ worth of false starts.

“I know exactly when I started writing it,” Orner said, leaning forward thoughtfully in his chair. It was 1998, shortly after he finished graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “I’ve carried (the story) around in that folder since then, just trying to find the right way to tell it.

“Then two years ago, I finally broke through,” he said. Other stories in Maggie Brown followed a similar trajectory: “There are a lot of stored-up stories like that for this (collection). There were a lot of stories I struggled to tell for a long time, that were hard for me to tell, for various personal reasons.

“Now, they’re out there.”

That’s the kind of writer Orner is: He might not wish to linger inside a story for very long, but in time, he always circles back to what haunts him. In Maggie Brown, he resurrects a character, Walt, who died in one of Orner’s previous books; he retells his own family stories, “just for the joy of it,” he said; he returns to California and Iowa and Lake Michigan, and to Fall River, Mass., where his grandfather’s furniture shop fell on hard times after I-95 went through the town, “like a stake through the heart,” he said.

“It destroyed his livelihood, and the livelihood of many other families,” Orner said. “That’s always haunted me.” And he still doesn’t feel he’s said everything he wants to say about it — like how to communicate the exact weight of a humidity he thinks is specific to the town, what that air felt like against the skin on an August afternoon 40 years ago.

“Your face feels like it’s melting. Like your whole head is inside a bowl of water that’s upside-down — or something — or, I guess it would fall, but somehow it’s not falling,” he started, then gave up, laughing at himself.

Perhaps what Orner calls his restless nature is part of what makes him such a successful short story writer: He knows that the form’s power comes from its negative space, and from the immenseness of what such a small container can hold.

“But I think we’ll be sticking here for a while,” he said. “And the Upper Valley is so rich with stories” — not unlike a law book on trusts and estates, if you read it the way Peter Orner does, anyway, looking for poodles and date nights and truths about how we get by.

“It’s probably for the best,” he said of his career choice, chuckling. “I think I would have been one of those hack lawyers.

There’s a story about those in Maggie Brown, too. It’s almost nine pages long.

Peter Orner will read from his new short story collection, Maggie Brown & Others, on July 28 at the Joan Hutton Landis Summer Reading Series at BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt., and on Aug. 1 at the Meetinghouse Readings series in Canaan.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at emmajeanholley@gmail.com.