Skip to main content

Maggie Brown & Others: Stories

Review

Maggie Brown & Others: Stories

“If ‘well-read’ means ‘not missing anything,’ then nobody has a chance,” NPR pop culture critic Linda Holmes wrote in a wistful 2011 essay entitled “The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going to Miss Almost Everything.” That piece came to mind as the pages of Peter Orner’s beguiling story collection, MAGGIE BROWN & OTHERS, accumulated under my left thumb and I wondered how, in a lifetime of reading, I’d managed to avoid an encounter with his work. Happily for me, now that we’ve met on the page, I don’t intend to stop with this book.

Though MAGGIE BROWN barely exceeds 300 pages, its 44 stories --- some of them as brief as a page or two --- and a concluding novella so teem with ingenuity, wit and variety that there were times when I felt like a tourist on a bus racing through a country full of impressive sites where I might instead prefer to linger. Grouped into five sections, the stories move from the California coast to Chicago in the 1980s to New York’s Hudson Valley to Fall River, Massachusetts, with lots of detours on the way, exploring life in all its tragic and comic dimensions.

"Though MAGGIE BROWN barely exceeds 300 pages, its 44 stories --- some of them as brief as a page or two --- and a concluding novella so teem with ingenuity, wit and variety that there were times when I felt like a tourist on a bus racing through a country full of impressive sites where I might instead prefer to linger."

Along with its brevity and resistance to formula, a signature feature of Orner’s fiction is his fondness for dropping readers into deep water, trusting they’ll make their way to solid ground. A few examples of his artful openings include: “Everybody knows this. Sometime you lose everything, including your clothes.” (“Naked Man Hides”); or “The time Mr. Leopardi burst through our always-open front door, shouting gibberish at the top of his lungs.” (“The Language of that Year”); or “At that point, they were still trying to solve it by talking, and so they went, together, to see a therapist who worked out of an office in her house.” (“Rhinebeck,” the first of the stories in the section “Renters: A Sequence,” a portrait of a marriage collapsing under the weight of the wife’s mental illness). Who wouldn’t want to read on after openings like these? But they’re only part of the pleasure of Orner’s stories, as even the shortest and most enigmatic of his tales possess a satisfying shapeliness.

It helps that, for all their obvious flaws, Orner’s characters are never mere literary chess pieces. That’s true whether he’s writing about an insomniac divorced man in San Mateo, California, who’s discovered his “ability to obliterate hours without moving,” or “Bernard,” a “champion liar” who could “tell the truth like nobody’s business,” or “Uncle Norm,” a “self-taught pointy-head” who stays late at his cookie factory reading philosophy while his business collapses around him after sugar prices spike in 1976. “Enough with the news. Sugar’s quadrupled. He’s doomed. What else is there to know?” Spinoza perhaps? Orner suggests.

Orner’s compassion flourishes in stories like “Ineffectual Tribute to Len,” the portrait of the former assistant director of a Wisconsin summer camp who’s dying of AIDS in a Chicago hospital. The narrator (Orner, or someone who bears a certain resemblance to him), drives his taxicab from Iowa City in a snowstorm to pay a visit, and spends the evening reminiscing as Len steers the cab through the city’s snowy streets. Confessing he’s been “deluding myself that I’m going to make a novel out of Len,” in only 20 pages he creates a tender, fully realized portrait of his friend, “one of those people who pop up randomly and change everything, and you can’t imagine any story of your life, lame as it might be, told without them.”

The collection’s title story, a brief recollection of a former lover in Ann Arbor, a woman who played cello and whose Alabama accent “burned a hole in my lower intestines,” is a reminder that “You end up forgetting the people you shouldn’t and remembering the people who’ve forgotten all about you.” Another highlight, illuminating the sad truth that “there isn’t any limit to how far a person can fall in America,” is “Bernard: A Character Study,” which seeks to solve the riddle of the narrator’s mother’s first cousin, a mathematics genius who dropped out of Harvard and whose life ended in a rental cabin in frozen New Hampshire.

Orner’s talent for creating memorable characters reaches its apex in “Walt Kaplan Is Broke,” the novella-in-stories that composes the final third of MAGGIE BROWN. Set mainly in the 1970s in the once prosperous, now devastated, former mill town of Fall River, Massachusetts, and featuring a protagonist who has appeared previously in his fiction, it’s a small-scale version of John Updike’s Rabbit novels. Walt’s family furniture business (along with several other of his ventures) has failed, and he’s been reduced to working in the furniture store owned by his brother-in-law. Felled by a heart attack as the novella opens, Walt, an amateur local historian who thinks of himself as a “scholar of death,” reflects on his own mortality as he walks the streets of his once proud city and shares a loving marriage with his wife of 35 years.

Peter Orner’s fiction overflows with small moments of illumination, little jolts of hard-earned wisdom and humor that detonate on nearly every page. In his 2016 nonfiction collection, AM I ALONE HERE?, he wrote, “Fiction isn’t machinery, it’s alchemy.” In MAGGIE BROWN & OTHERS, he’s done nothing short of conjuring the dross of everyday life into pure gold.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 12, 2019

Maggie Brown & Others: Stories
by Peter Orner

  • Publication Date: July 2, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316516112
  • ISBN-13: 9780316516112