Lately, I've been trying to cure myself of my packrat tendencies and have been sorting through boxes of papers and mementos I've amassed over the years. In the box I most recently opened, I found an old Comiskey Park ticket stub from a Sox game I attended with a long-lost college pal and an overexposed Polaroid photograph of the West Rogers Park house where I grew up. I found playbills, letters, postcards, newspaper clippings about the 1983 mayoral election, a cocktail napkin from Myron & Phil's steakhouse, scraps of abandoned short stories, and a Michael Dukakis campaign button. Clearly, I never bothered to arrange the items in the boxes in any particular way. And yet, taken together, each of the small items manages to fuse with the others in my mind to become part of a cohesive, autobiographical narrative, an entire history told in fragments.
Though Peter Orner is quite purposeful and precise in his nonlinear approach to storytelling, reading his latest novel "Love and Shame and Love" can evoke the sensation of unpacking a box full of memories. The author eschews traditional chronology as he tells the multigenerational saga of the Poppers, a Jewish family from Chicago, as its members progress from the first half of the 20th century to the beginning of the 21st, from lower middle class to assimilated, upper class status, from Rogers Park to Highland Park to Wicker Park. Orner relates this history in brief, frequently lovely chapters, vignettes, and letters, which ultimately coalesce to create a powerful and heartfelt family history, one that seems characterized as much by loss and longing as it is by shame and the double dose of love suggested by the book's title.
John Marshall, and starts his own ill-fated family in Wicker Park with his college girlfriend, Kat. Popper's experiences share some similarities with those of the character of Alex Burman in Orner's 2001 collection "Esther Stories" and are apparently based in part on the author's own life — Orner is a lawyer who grew up in Highland Park, attended the University of Michigan and now teaches creative writing in San Francisco. But this is less a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman or a sad chronicle of one family's ascent and decline than it is an ambitious, kaleidoscopic novel of the Jewish experience in Chicago, one that is vast enough to encompass the 1933 Century of Progress world's fair, World War II, the 1968 West Side riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the mayoral reigns of Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, and a pair of Daleys, and the legacies of Jewish machine politician Jake Arvey and Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz.
"Love and Shame and Love" serves not only as an ode to the history of Chicago, but to Chicago literature itself. Orner's chapters, sometimes no more than half a page long, can bring to mind the cumulative "pow!" of the novel-in-stories approach utilized to great effect by Stuart Dybek in "I Sailed withMagellan" and "The Coast of Chicago." A feisty and pugnacious anthem dedicated to Bernard Epton, who almost became Chicago's first Jewish mayor, suggests a comic riff on Nelson Algren's "Chicago: City on the Make," one that practically begs to be read aloud by the late Studs Terkel: "Go get 'em, Jew boy. Italians for Eptonini. Irish for MacEpton. Poles for Eptonizinski. Mexicans for Bernie Cruz. Wait, what? (Never mind, just pull the lever for the white guy)." Popper's own suburban, poetic yearnings recall those of the characters in Rich Cohen's "Lake Effect" and James Atlas' "The Great Pretender." A lyrical aside about fog pays homage to Carl Sandburg. And in Orner's erudite, quotation-filled prose, which references such writers as Stendhal, Shakespeare, Ben Hecht, and dozens of others, there is, of course, more than a hint of Saul Bellow, an author whom Popper's significant other dismisses as a "blowhard," whose characters "all sound like him." This is a criticism that Orner clearly rejects and one that does not apply to his own cast of multifaceted characters.
As a native of Rogers Park who always took pride in the fact that his parents never escaped to the suburbs, I did bristle at Orner's specious and fairly elitist assertion that "Jews who didn't have means either stayed put in Rogers Park or they went north and inland away from the lake, to Skokie." But for the most part, Orner's writing exhibits admirable accuracy, great generosity, and a keen capacity for observation. The novel is particularly remarkable for the specificity of its characters and the settings they frequent. Readers with Chicago connections will have no trouble cozying up to a book that name-drops underrated White Sox infielder Jorge Orta, the Villa Venice supper club, and Lincolnwood's purple hotel, formerly called the Hyatt House, where Jewish mobster Allen Dorfman was gunned down. But the more universal story of the Poppers' thwarted dreams and loves will likely resonate with those who have never set foot in Chicago or its northern suburbs.
For some, the author's style may at first take some getting used to and it may, in fact, sacrifice something in terms of forward momentum and traditional character development. But Orner more than makes up for that with the refreshing unpredictability of his narrative, which performs the neat trick of mimicking the logic of memory itself, or perhaps, the experience of opening up a box filled with artifacts and seeing all the memories and stories that rise to the surface.
Adam Langer is the author of numerous books, including "Crossing California" and, most recently "My Father's Bonus March".
"Love and Shame and Love"
By Peter Orner
Little, Brown and Company, 448 Pages, $24.99
'Love and Shame and Love' by Peter Orner
Orner's style may at first take some getting used to, but hemore than makes up for that with the refreshing unpredictability of his narrative.
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