Mag­gie Brown & Others

  • Review
By – October 23, 2019

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 writ­ing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Tick­et, San­ta Fe Writ­ers’ Project Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from Rutgers-Newark.

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