Peter Orner’s intimate voice, his deft touch — how he ends a story just when the protagonist is leaning over the edge of a cliff, suspended and preparing themselves for a fall — is what makes Maggie Brown & Others so memorable. His lost characters find themselves stuck between pragmatisms and ambition, love and responsibility, and they squirm inside these parameters, either eking out meaning or succumbing to alienation and ennui.
In this collection of forty-three short stories and one novella, Orner travels the country: from California to Iowa to Illinois to Michigan, finally settling in Falls River, Massachusetts. On this tour, Orner showcases his tremendous range in character, writing about the lives of a Harvard dropout turned reporter for a local paper; a family’s black sheep who only calls his sister after his mother has passed, remaining forever anonymous, just a voice on a phone; the son of a tyrannical and status-obsessed lawyer; an orderly on a psychiatric ward who cares and falls for the patients he monitors; and many others. With these characters, Orner inhabits others’ minds and bodies with such compassion, treating them as if they were family or, better yet, himself.
Many of Maggie Brown & Others’ stories are eulogistic, wherein the protagonist sets out to encapsulate the life and essence of someone they loved — and each time the protagonist fails. This failure does not come instantaneously, as the protagonist tells anecdote after anecdote of their deceased loved one, eventually turning their subjects into symbols. Only when the protagonist reconciles with the enormity of what they’d set out to do are they able to give up their impossible task. At their core, Orner’s protagonists ask: how can I recreate someone I’ve loved? How can I prove to others how alive and impactful they really were? Watching this innately human endeavor grow and wilt is both devastating and beautiful.
The primary setback of the brief style that largely defines Maggie Brown & Others—many of its stories are two- to four-pages long — is that they move so quickly that it’s easy to miss them, to not absorb them like one would longer pieces. Orner can poignantly describe a life or a relationship in two hundred words, but if the reader’s attention lapses for only a sentence, that life or relationship will have passed by — but maybe that’s partially the point: that the stories’ brevity, their few but immensely important details, exemplifies how easy it is for some to not notice the depth of those who exist on the margins of their lives, how effortless and ill-fated it is to gloss over another person.
Benjamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jersey. His work has appeared in decomP magazinE, Literary Orphans, Santa Fe Writers’ Project Quarterly, and other publications.