Peter Orner’s new story collection reeks of death — corpses wrapped in Hefty bags, corpses fished out of ponds, corpses with their heads bashed in, as well as the shuffled-off mortal coils of old railroad men, old bookbinders, ex-cons, ex-husbands, and the lifeless body of that tragic innocent, Mary Jo Kopechne.
All this carnage, which grows to represent the accumulated wreckage of human existence, is described in a matter-of-fact, often laconic voice, typically related by a young survivor or witness looking back from a distance of years. Taken together, the gloomy, almost thoughtless irreverence of these narrators in the face of so much misery has an unsettling, yet comic effect.
The author of a previous collection, “Esther Stories,’’ and a pair of novels, Orner here gathers his latest short fiction, including “Pampkin’s Lament,” which won a Pushcart Prize. Although the stories are set in various locales and range across time, the majority take place during the 1970s or ’80s in the Chicago area, where Orner hails from, and throughout Massachusetts.
Several titles contain the year when the action occurred (“Lubyanka Prison, Moscow, 1940”), or consist entirely of a date (“February 26, 1995”). Orner often employs a wistful, somewhat timid narrator hearkening back, say 10 or 20 years, when the people in the story were considering events that happened much earlier. This creates an intriguing effect, like peering through a telescope to examine something else that’s under a microscope.
OVERALL, THESE CHARACTERS RECOGNIZE OUR EXISTENTIAL DILEMMA — THAT LIFE IS ABSURDLY SHORT AND OFTEN QUITE MEANINGLESS — BUT LACK THE BRIO TO SHRUG IT OFF AND SEIZE THE DAY. In “Dyke Bridge,” the narrator revisits the summer of 1976 when he and his brother, as children, vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard, often hunting for shellfish beneath the bridge where Mary Jo Kopechne plunged to her death in 1969. The narrator recalls the whelk they fished up from the shallows (“a black body inside, a Jell-O-ish squirmy thing that we will take back to our rented house and boil alive on the stove”), later shifting into Ted Kennedy’s perspective during the Chappaquiddick tragedy: “Aren’t I a Kennedy? Aren’t I the brother of the hero of PT-109? Isn’t now the time? No. . . . Now is the time to save yourself.”
It’s hard to describe a collection of stories, because each one is meant to embody an individual life, a separate world. One of the best in this book is “Herb and Rosalie Swanson at the Cocoanut Grove,” the tale of “everybody’s favorite dentist” and his enigmatic wife, who survived the infamous 1942 Boston nightclub fire that killed 492 people. For decades, the Swansons regaled their party guests with details of the fire, as well as the lives of several victims, including the “forgotten movie star” Buck Jones, while protecting the secret of their own actions that night.
In “Horace and Josephine,” a young man reminisces about the checkered career of his uncle, a wannabe Bernie Madoff who once told his nephew, “capitalists may be dogs, but we’re the only dogs that hunt.” What makes this story great is how Orner conjures up a sense of human dignity and familial love in his account of the old swindler’s long descent into penury.
In contrast to these gems are a number of overblown, awkwardly truncated tales that aren’t nearly as well crafted. Hardscrabble novelist Harry Crews, who died last year, often remarked that, in his vast reading, the shortest piece of fiction that was actually a story — with three-dimensional characters and a beginning, middle, and end — was Irwin Shaw’s “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” just under 3,000 words.
Orner, though celebrated for the compression of his fiction, includes many brief pieces here that simply don’t amount to much. He often concludes these vignettes with one or more rhetorical questions, perhaps to broaden the story’s effect, urging his reader to fill in the missing details: “Do you remember? When all you had was your own sweaty needs, your own endless furious needs?” and “How can I shout farewell from the mountaintop if I never leave the house?” So-called “sudden” or “flash” fiction is doomed to the same dusty fate as meta-fiction and minimalism, since good storytelling will always prevail over literary trends.
Prevail it does in Orner’s best stories. His work strikes home gently, but with devastating impact, and his characters impart their haunting message: “In sleep, they breathe their finite breaths.”Jay Atkinson teaches writing at Boston University and is the author of seven books, including the story collection “Tauvernier Street.’’ Follow him on Twitter @Atkinson_Jay.