Love and Shame and Love

Peter Orner's Love and Shame and Love (2011) is a novel linking three generations of the Popper family with Alexander Popper--the main character and perhaps the voice of the author. His nickname is "Popper." The book is written in vignettes. Some of the most poignant ones are from Alexander's grandfather, Seymour. We come to realize how little Seymour knows of his dancer wife through his letters to her during WWII. Maria Russo, in her recent review of the book, sums up the Popper men.

As (Seymour) tracks the final days of the Pacific conflict, wild with desire to get back to her, we sense his fundamental lack of understanding of the woman he will return to. He is all forward motion, everything Popper is not, and yet we can see a deeper pattern that Popper and his father will inherit, of not quite knowing how to hold onto the women they love.

(New York Times Book Review, December 9, 2011)

We get glimpses of Bernice's loneliness when she reflects on the dancer she could have been. Then, in a chapter entitled, 1308 Lunt Avenue, we see her looking out of the dirty window in the attic, contemplating the next day's move to Highland Park. Orner beautifully captures the sense of entrapment she feels as she gazes at the "brown lawns and leafless trees" through "a blur of spit and dirt."

And tomorrow? Tomorrow we will box ourselves up and move northward to become a new address. But we lug our old ones around with us, don't we? Isn't a new house number a sham? At least in the beginning, before it begins to weigh anything? Like those first few hours in a wedding dress when you're lulled into thinking the ring on your finger will change things. (p. 43)
Alexander's parents are no happier than his grandparent are, despite their comfortable life on the North Shore. Alexander grows up in a tense home where his parents don't speak to each other; if they do, they merely argue. Popper's best friend is Manny, the son of Haitian refugees who live and work in a crumbling estate. It is barely habitable. He feels a kinship with him, as well as a sense of being denied his rightful place on the rougher streets of Chicago.

Race and class issues of the 60s and 70s are touched upon, as are Chicago politics and suburban lifestyles. Whereas other Highland Park families employed housemaids, Popper's parents employed Hollis, a middle aged man- perhaps black- who cooked and maintained the day-to-day running of the house. When Popper was sick, it was Hollis he woke. And it was Hollis whom Miriam talked to at night, after she washed the dishes. She would go to his room in the basement, the blue light of the television encircling them as they drank some wine. "Hollis never asked Miriam why she stayed. He wasn't one to underestimate the power of a roof, any roof." (p. 139)

When Hollis dies of a massive heart attack in their basement, family from elsewhere come but do not claim him. He is buried near the Popper family plot, but in a grave without a headstone or marker. The author, through Popper, makes no comment on this, but the implications are jarring.

Some of the vignettes deal with the power of the Chicago Machine under Mayor Richard J. Daley. There is an especially funny opening chapter with a twelve-year-old Popper meeting Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz. Marovitz equates the failure of Moses to not being a team player in a land of Chicago cronyism. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the scene would have fallen flat. In Orner's hands, Marovitz is larger than life--the brilliant son of unskilled immigrants who rose to become "the machine's favorite judge."

Some of the vignettes, however, seem extraneous and may cause the reader to complain, "Enough already." Ron Charles, the wonderful critic for the Washington Post agrees, although he,too, enjoyed the book. As he writes:

Paragraphs we might have happily sailed through sometimes sink under the burden of being set alone on a blank page. So many signs of despair in a row risk making the story hyperventilate. When Alexander's girlfriend accuses him of loving melancholy more than anything else, she may have hit on his problem as well as this novel's. For some readers, like me, that's a lovable weakness. As Alexander says, "I'm trying to write a sad story, a good, said story." Orner has done just that. (Washington Post, November 29, 2011, www.washingonpost.com)

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