Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is the latest collection of short stories by Peter Orner. There are 51 stories in this relatively short book. The stories vary greatly in length from several pages to just one or two. In each, human emotion is crystallized into a precious gem.

Orner is at his best when capturing the dynamics of extended Jewish families, the love (or lack thereof) of married couples, the loneliness and price of leaving one's homeland, and always, the indignities of aging. His stories are windows into familiar rooms, for who among us has not experienced love or longing or dashed hopes?

Take, for example, "Horace and Josephine." Horace Ginsberg, son of an upholsterer, has made millions running a lucrative Ponzi scheme. His much beloved wife, Josephine, walks around the house like a princess, even after the family's disgrace. Her love for Horace never wavers, even when they go from summers on the Cape to summers on Horseneck Beach. "Oh, Mr. Onassis," she says. You're always taking me places. Today, the South of France." (p. 47)

The story is told by the nephew looking back on his childhood. The young man, now in college, recalls his brother's political conversations with Uncle Horace (the only Republican in the family). The humor in this story is outstanding, making the tragedy of the couple's fall from grace all the more poignant. Orner has succeeded in humanizing a man like Bernie Madoff, making him a comic character likened to an aging crab. But it is Josephine who steals our hearts. As the narrator recalls their eventual fates in old age, even the most righteous reader will shed a tear. Life has a way of exacting its toll, be it deserved or not.

In "Waukegan Story," a wife leaves her doctor husband for life in America. She was once a teacher, but now rides a van with other maids and cleans houses in Lake Forest. But, like Josephine, she does not stop dreaming. "At night, she'd coo to her sleeping (son), but really more to herself, that where you are is in your mind, that it's got nothing to do with maps. That if you aren't in Waukegan in your mind, you aren't there. Do you hear me, little man? This isn't Waukegan, it's the Horn of Plenty."( p. 133)

Because the stories vary so widely both in style (the ones in italics read like memoir) and range, it is difficult to summarize this book. Skip Horack of the San Francisco Chronicle (August 11, 2013) compared Peter Orner to a contemporary master of short fiction--William  Trevor. In his 1989 interview with Paris Review, Trevor defined the short story as follows:

I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony and cannot wander. It is essential art.

Ultimately,  Last Car Over Sagamore Bridge fulfills every aspect of Trevor's definition. It is an essential read.

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