Peter Orner, Esther Stories
Depending on your perspective, Peter Orner's debut, Esther Stories, is either a story collection, or one-half story collection and two novellas-in-stories. The "novellas" - Fall River Marriage and The Waters - are the strongest part of the book, and especially the former. Fall River Marriage tells, in fifty brisk pages, the story of Walt and Sarah Kaplan and their forty years together, from their quickie out-of-state marriage (with Sarah three months pregnant at the time) to Walt's early death, at 59, from a heart attack. The brief but vivid stories are almost like photographs of their marriage - funny, touching and sometimes sad. A wonderful piece.
The Waters tries the same approach but is less successful, primarily because the focus is much broader, spanning multiple generations instead of a single married couple. The story is also told by several narrators, making it sometimes difficult to follow who exactly is speaking. I don't think the multi-generation, multi-narrator structure quite works with the minimalist, fragmentary narrative that Orner seems to prefer. And interestingly enough, the story's Chicago setting didn't grab me nearly as much as that of the first piece (Fall River, Massachusetts). I would have thought a Chicago story would have really hit home.
As for the individual stories in the first half of the book, only two really stuck with me - the sad "Cousin Tuck's" (about the doomed relationship of a one-eyed pool shark and a community activist) and the darkly funny "Two Poes" (about a town plagued with two Edgar Allan Poe impersonators, who were hired for tourism promotion and never bothered to leave) - while the others soon faded from memory.
In all, Esther Stories was a worthwhile read, though mostly for Fall River Marriage. Orner has recently published his first novel, Love and Shame and Love, which I now definitely have my eye on.