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Esther Stories
Esther Stories
Peter Orner
Back Bay Books, 2013
256 pp., $14.99

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Love and Shame and Love: A Novel
Love and Shame and Love: A Novel
Peter Orner
Little, Brown and Company, 2011
448 pp., $24.99

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Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge
Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge
Peter Orner
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
208 pp., $25.00

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David V. Urban


Compassion for Difficult Fathers

Reflections by a boyhood friend on Peter Orner's fiction.

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And perhaps Orner's depiction of Phillip can be seen as an extended attempt to come to terms with a paradoxical weakness and ferocity that were always present in his father. I write that sentence cautiously, not wanting to equate Phillip with Orner's father, recognizing, as Orner emphasized at the Festival, that Phillip, though based on his father, is a fictional creation, developed over fifteen years, with a distinct life of his own. Regardless, I offer the following reflections on Phillip as especially meaningful examples of Orner's rachmones.

Phillip is portrayed at different stages of his life in several pieces within Esther Stories. But he first appears as a young boy trying desperately to gain closeness with his father, a decorated World War II veteran, as the two look out on Lake Michigan. Orner's narrator, Phillip's son, relates the following:

My father says nothing. When my grandfather was gone in the war, my father used to draw pictures of him riding on his ship. Pictures with crayon captions like YOU KILLER JAPS BEWARE MY DAD!!! But now that my grandfather has returned, my father is afraid of him, of his shouting confidence, of the attacking way he handles his fork at the dinner table. And my father knows that the war didn't make my grandfather this way. He remembers it was this way before, too. He'd hoped with all his pictures and with his praying that the war would either change his father or kill him. Neither has happened. And he is ten years old and looking out into the glare of the summer lake, and although my grandfather's voice is soft and playful, the hand that holds my father's is a wrench that slowly tightens around his aching fingers. The boy stares out at the vast and tries to see what his father sees.

The adult Phillip seen later in Esther Stories and throughout Love and Shame and Love is often harsh and hurtful, and yet the above narrative informs readers of the broken child who grew to be that man, a frightened boy who longed to love and be loved by his father, a father who failed to tangibly show his love to Phillip, who would repeat such failure in his own adult life.

In Love and Shame and Love, Orner's rachmones toward Phillip is seen as his marriage to his wife, Miriam, disintegrates. The marriage, never strong, reaches a breaking point when Phillip discovers Miriam's adultery with a family friend. The humiliated Phillip jumps on Miriam and punches her while their young sons intervene and call 911. The assault ends quickly, and Miriam is uninjured, but the immediate aftermath suggests that, although the marriage will drag on for a time, Phillip has lost Miriam, who, despite the abuse, views Phillip as a man worthy more of dispassionate rejection than fear: "Phillip began weeping and yelping apologies, and Miriam, without a word, stood up and went to the guest room and closed but didn't lock the door." Phillip's later inept attempts to reengage Miriam are similarly rejected without emotion. During a painfully silent evening together, Phillip again tries:

"You did something to your hair," Phillip said.
"Did I?"
Phillip coughs, but he doesn't say anything else. Tonight he will not knock on the guest room door. He will not try to turn the knob without knocking either. Miriam looks past him at the wall behind his head, the blank space to the right of the window, where she had always meant to hang something.

During his Festival interview, Orner specifically discussed the abuse scene. The victim deserves compassion, he said, but so does the perpetrator. And in his depiction of Phillip, Orner portrays a man who is, arguably, the person most wounded by his own abuse, a man whose attempts to reestablish communication with his wife are as unsuccessful as his boyhood attempts to establish intimacy with his father.

Two short pieces in Last Car over the Sagamore Bridge again depict Phillip's feeble attempts to reach his wife and family. The first is a brief untitled interchapter in which Orner's narrator recalls his mother's self-imposed isolation from her husband within their home. He states: "Sometimes she'd stay up all night, reading. Middlemarch was one of the books always beside the bed. It was the guest room, but we called it her room. She no longer shared my father's. We didn't have many guests. The door's locked. Sometimes at night my father comes and tries the knob."

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