Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Esther Stories" Peter Orner

Orner, Peter. Esther Stories. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Books, 2001.

The short stories that Pete Orner tells in Esther Stories are varied; but each are effectively told with the same raw emotion and reality that one can easily identify with. The characters in Orner’s short story all long for something more. Orner’s complex characters were written with such honesty and substance that they come off as people the reader could possibly know or meet.

In Orner’s first piece, “Initials Etched on a Dining Room Table, Lockeport, Nova Scotia,” he does not necessarily write about the girl who carved her initials into the wood of the table that “had always been too good to eat on.” Instead, he writes about the disturbance that the cod fisherman and his wife had suffered wondering who this girl was and why she did it. She was in their home, sent to clean, but she left far more of a lasting impression on this couple whom was childless and only had each other. Orner relates these characters not by their present situation, but more from a situation that had occurred years prior. This girl who carved RGL into their table haunts the lonesome personas of the sea captain and his wife. Orner doesn’t tell the reader the story of this girl who was probably haunted by her own demons; he tells the reader of the fisherman and his wife and their life after RGL was permanently scarred into it. Orner’s use of descriptive language allows the reader to enter into their lives. He effectively connects the reader in this very first story and asks them to understand these people for who they are, but at the same time he pulls the reader away after only two and three-fourths of a page. The reader does not need more from Orner, because he has already given the story for what it should be told.

With the selection “Pile of Clothes,” Orner again achieves a story that revolves around past events that shape the characters future. The Landlord, by name, is required to empty out the apartment of the older lady who lived above him. When he goes to do so, he is faced with an immense amount of clothing left by this old woman. He did not really know this woman, and he hardly spoke to her, but her death destroyed what was left of his life. Orner correlates the loneliness felt from the landlord in a way that the reader wished that he had connected with the older lady before she passed as much as he did. Orner uses clothes to represent the life of this woman. Clothing does not carry any life or movement, unless someone wears them. Then, it is the life of the wearer that clothing embodies. When someone passes, the life and the spirit of them are gone from their bodies, but in some people’s eyes they remain in their clothes. The act of removing the clothing is what drives the plot line, if there really is one. Orner’s character attempts to be okay with his solitude, but it is the older lady who is keeping him sane. This longing behavior for something that the landlord never really knew strikes the reader. The people we meet and the people we get to know all leave an impression on us. When these people are gone, what is left? For the landlord, a pile of clothes is what is left of a life and people he once knew.

In another section, “At the Motel Rainbow,” the story centers on two young lovers and their first intimate night together. Orner takes a different road in creating the characters. This time he starts by making the first character inanimate. The Motel Rainbow is thoroughly and thoughtfully described first making itself the setting as well as a supporting character. Wade and Sue are the young lovers; their tryst is to take place in the abandoned motel. The story of young love and secret rendezvous’ has been told before. However, it is what happens after these two consummate their supposed love for each other. Sue leaves. Wade wakes up the next morning to find Sue missing, as well as his car. Later, the reader finds out Sue left on her on will. However, it is unclear as to why she did so at first. There is something more to these characters. Orner slowly pulls out the truth, while jumping a bit in time. Sue becomes much more complex than a girl who just stole her boyfriend’s car for a joy ride. She becomes much deeper; she is scared. Her boyfriend “aspired without her,” and she knows one day she will be left and forgotten. Their love takes on an abstract ideal; will they remain together forever? Will life pull them apart? So, she decides she’d answer the questions herself, before Wade could do it himself. She leaves. Orner’s bittersweet love story heightens what is an awkward moment in a young person’s life by them growing more quickly. Adolescence has been done before, but hardly ever as effective as “At the Motel Rainbow.” Here, young lives grow together and grow apart in a matter of pages; or, to the main characters, Wade and Sue, in a matter of hours.

Orner doesn’t just tell the reader about a character. He makes the reader know the character. Orner’s characters are not just names on a page; they are living in the reader’s mind, they have souls, and they relate to the reader. Orner’s characters bring so much to such short sections of literature that you often forget that they are fictional. The small towns they live in with their big lives are so ordinary and real that one cannot help but feel for these characters. He tells their story with the reality that they deserve while not being overwhelmed with harshness of real life. Real life can be boring, but Orner does not tell a boring story.


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This blogsite is our temporary home while our website undergoes an extreme makeover of epic proportions (shifted septums, pacemakers, calf implants, dialysis, a fancy wig, contacts -- the works).

This was our old home, and while it is a bit dated, it's a good source of info regarding recent issues and the history of Prism Review.

Updates will follow regarding our new home. ETA summer 2009.