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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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In "The Moors of Chicago," Orner's narrator recalls a hill overlooking Lake Michigan to which his parents would take him and his brother in an attempt to offer their fragile family some peace. He relates: "My mother would lie on her back and stare at the sky. My father would talk. My mother would look at the sky and sometimes answer him, sometimes not. I'd run around in circles in the grass." He remembers the hill with sadness— it was "too full of other people's laughter"—but he suggests that such mirth was why his parents took them there: "Maybe they thought something would rub off on us." He specifically recalls when his father made him a kite and tried to fly it with him, only to see the kite nosedive to the ground. "I cheered," the narrator writes. "Then I went over and jumped on it, crushed it to pieces." In retrospect, he recognizes that he "betrayed" his father's "small attempt at something approximating love." "My father tried," the narrator now admits.

Indeed, one could say that Phillip's relationships to others, ironically, are characterized by episodes of trying. Trying to see what his father sees. Trying to speak to a wife who, largely by his own doing, has emotionally deserted him. Trying to turn the knob on a locked door. Trying to fly a kite with an unappreciative son, one who, unlike Phillip at the same age, looking out over the same lake, does not try "to see what his father sees." In his own weak, confused way, Phillip tried, and failed, to communicate love as best he knew how with three generations of those he loved most.

When Peter arrived at the Festival, he was clearly shaken. His father, he told me, had died the day before. The Festival, which Peter was now attending with considerable misgivings, would amount to his stopover from his flight from his home in San Francisco before he proceeded to Chicago to attend his father's memorial and spend time with his family. During his Festival interview, Orner honored his father, calling him one of the finest readers of his writing, a reader who genuinely understood the distinction between fiction and the actual past.

And perhaps in his depiction of Phillip, Orner also honored his father, trying years later to see, through fiction, what his father saw, offering rachmones to a difficult but beloved father.

David V. Urban is professor of English at Calvin College. He has published on Milton, C. S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Athol Fugard, Tolstoy, Addison, Hawthorne, Melville, and the Bible.

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