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One part soothing, two parts elegiac, Esther Stories by Peter Orner is an amorphous palimpsest producing order from chaos and constructing uniqueness from homogeneity. A seasoned ornithologist, even amidst a cacophony of screams and shrieks, can successfully place a squeak to its rightful plumage. Similarly, Orner although manufacturing a roiling cauldron of emotions, places each tick, twitch and tremble exactly, and exquisitely where they belong! An absolute master going about his craft. It comes as no surprise therefore, that with this debut, Orner is already being spoken about in the same breath as Alice Munro, Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson.
Orner’s characters are no different from you and me. They go to school, pray, fall in love, stealthily break into and make out in wrecked motels, consume an indiscriminate number of greasy hot dogs, own dirty and damp bars, ogle at women and wing an affair (or two if lucky). Some of them also get a cardiac arrest and drop down dead. But it is this very simplicity that accords a dynamic and spans a dimension which make the stories downright frightening. For they place a mirror to your conscience.
For example in the title story, which also happens to be the longest in the book – most of the stories are but a couple of pages or even a few passages long – there is this humdinger of a paragraph, “There is no mistaking the shape of my grandfather. He is 5’ 7”, bold, forward and squat. The muscles in his shoulders are bunched up so that his neck and shoulders meet as one…The boy stares out at the vast and tries to see what his father sees.” We think that the boy is possessed of the same thoughts which are the preserve of his father, even though we know deep inside that what he is thinking is not at all what we think he is thinking!
A menagerie of names like Alf Dolinsky, Anita Fanska, Steve Matovic, and Sal Burkus assail your mind as they end up performing a psychedelic dance inside your head. Pink Floyd would do well to read Esther Stories prior to releasing their next album. They may derive dollops of inspiration. Clare Warnoc in the story “County Road G”, finds the dead body of Vernon Troyer, in of all places, a bathtub, that too hidden behind a thicket of bare poplars. A reignition of an old flame gone wrong, the murder of the proprietor of Vernon Troyer Trucking, Ashland, Wisconsin, reawakens old scars in poor Clare, scars that she has been hiding from an unsuspecting world.
“At The Motel Rainbow” has Sue and Wade breaking into 12C of the now derelict Hotel Rainbow – the only room with a dirty mattress and a smashed TV set – determined to lose both inhibition and virginity. Armed with a torch, spare batteries, a magazine, lots of condoms, beer and tape player (all the right accoutrements for a proper romp), they enter the Motel through the only open and accessible window. While Wade is egregiousness personified, he does not realise that virginity is not the only thing he would be forced to let go.
‘Sitting Theodore‘ is a metaphysically comic story in which after hiring two hit-men – one of whom coincidentally happens to be an undercover police officer – to bump her husband (a man who sings and farts noisily in the shower), off, Mrs. Gold gets pregnant with the child of the hit man who is not a cop, and for good measure, falls hopelessly in love with the mercurial Ms. Fran Swanner, the lawyer representing her in the case. Fran, on her part, nonchalantly announces to her poleaxed family about her newfound love before coolly walking out on them. This tale of intrigues and nuances is narrated by the babysitter of Theodore, the son of Mrs. Gold and the hitman.
The pièce de resistance represents the Esther stories. The effect of this bunch of stories on the reader is akin to an abrupt, urgent yet involuntary transition from a leisurely waltz to a manic dervish whorl. Orner grabs you by the scruff of your neck and gives you such a godawful shake that there is nothing smooth about it. If Esther Stories was a game of basketball, you the reader is the bloody slam dunk. The shame, solace and solitude of Esther is a silence that puts the boom of a cannon to absolute shame in its deafening roar.
With phenomenal eagerness tempered with assiduous, I now begin yet another Orner set of short stories “Maggie Brown and Others”.
May The Force Be With Me!