published Sunday, January 1st, 2012

Orner weaves a story worth working for

By Adera Causey

Chicago is a city long known for its windy politicians, die-hard sports leagues and ghettoized sense of diversity, all of which pay fealty to the embedded municipal boss system. It is a city best measured in generations and best recounted in recognition of these legacies, as is the case of one such dynasty as writ by Peter Orner in "Love and Shame and Love."

A title like this might evoke images of romance novels, but the romance here is not of the dime-store variety but rooted in the ancient tragic tales of familial destiny, thereby developing a dynasty of regrets rather than of glory.

The primary narrator, Alexander Popper, is the latest in a line of ever aspirational, but not fully realized, Jewish men whose failures haunt the lives of the next generation. In brief chapters, we levitate around Alex's life as he grows from a haunted boy in an embattled home through his college years of experimentation and sardonic passion to his ultimate role as father and his finding truly aching love.

He speaks with the staccato swagger of the proto-hipster in an eternal game of hide-and-seek with reality, a game that is not far from those played by his ancestors. And it is those ancestors who offer their lives laid bare in interspersed chapters -- the tales of an attorney father with unrealized political aspirations and a World War II veteran grandfather whose letters home from war read of the false bravado of a noncombat sailor desperate to play hero to his bride.

The Holocaust looms over them, as it does much of American Jewry, but not nearly so much as the boss system and the ever-present Daley family, whose members they all quietly idolize. Their lives intersect with the swan-song era Rat Pack and the also-ran candidates Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, offering each generation a touch of fame in small, distant doses. Much of the 20th century seems to roll around them as they consistently miss chances to ride the tide of opportunity. Likewise, they tentatively expose themselves to evolving gender and race politics. To each, they offer liberal lip service, filled at times with academic rhetoric and communal belief systems but rarely delving into the realm of the personal or experiential.

Their lives are tragic in their ordinariness, in their predictability, in their near-misses and unceremonious deaths. Recounting the incidences in this book offers a litany of the unexceptional, a chorus to the pedestrian as each questions the inevitability of following family cycles behind masks of cowardice. The stories have the navel-gazing taint of middle-class ennui seemingly endemic in modern Jonathan Franzen model Midwestern novels. Unlike Franzen, Orner never allows his characters to speak in whiny tones but rather goads them to bring out their stories more in the tradition of a poetic Saul Bellow.

Orner is a writer for the patient. He drops us in the midst of a seemingly indecipherable multilayered story and then wraps us in it so that we are surrounded by, but never fully allowed into, the characters' lives. This envelopment is not suffocating but rather offers a cocoon as we accept the stories' unsettling resolve toward the everyday lives of those who, like so many, remain on the ever-swinging pendulum between "Love and Shame and Love."

Adera Causey is curator of education at the Hunter Museum of American Art.

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