Back Bay Books, 2013
256 pp., 14.99
Love and Shame and Love: A Novel
Little, Brown and Company, 2011
448 pp., 24.99
Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
208 pp., 25.00
David V. Urban
Compassion for Difficult Fathers
I prepared for Calvin College's 2014 Festival of Faith and Writing by reconnecting with an old high school friend, the fiction writer Peter Orner, whom I interviewed at the Festival. If Orner is not well known to Books & Culture readers, two of his mentors surely are: Andre Dubus, whose writing workshops Orner attended before Dubus' death and to whom Orner co-dedicated his award-winning 2001 short story collection, Esther Stories; and Marilynne Robinson, with whom Orner studied during his MFA at Iowa University and who wrote the forward for Esther Stories' 2013 reissue. For his own part, Orner, also the author of the acclaimed novels The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (2006) and Love and Shame and Love (2011) and short story collection Last Car over the Sagamore Bridge (2013), has in the past decade and a half established himself as what Granta editor Ted Hodgkinson calls "one of the most distinctive American voices of his generation."
Reading Orner's humorous and poignant canon while preparing for our interview proved a meaningful task. And because so much of his fiction takes place in memory, as an autobiographically influenced panoply of narratives often set in our native Chicagoland, Orner's work immediately set my own memory turning. In particular, I recalled how Peter, the stepson of our state representative and someone I then perceived as a member of Highland Park's Jewish gentry, and I, a lower-middle-class Catholic whose family lived in our affluent suburb only because of the then-affordable homes along the train tracks, formed an amusing, awkward friendship.
I cannot claim to be one of Peter's closest boyhood friends—indeed, as I admitted with regret to him in 2014, I let my socioeconomic insecurities obstruct our friendship—but we enjoyed an impish relationship characterized by ideological conflict, philosophical discussion, and political, romantic, and athletic rivalry, often expressed through snide comments that masked an underlying affection. During our sophomore year, Peter, fresh from reading Bernard Malamud's The Fixer, approached me and said, "Hey, Urban—did you know Jesus was Jewish?," a remark he punctuated with a triumphant and self-amused smile. Had he spoken those words after my evangelical conversion, I'd have one-upped him for sure: "Praise God, you're right—let me tell you about your Messiah!" But at the time he left me all but speechless, feebly muttering "No kidding" in response to his tacit reminder of my religion's derivative nature.
So often I've laughed at that recollection. But Peter could also be deadly earnest. As a freshman, I was, to my shame, habitually ridiculing a boy susceptible to mockery. Eventually Peter confronted me: "Urban—at least give him credit for being a human being." I tried laughing Peter off, but he persisted: "Give him credit for being a human being." Years later, faced with the glorious truth that all human beings are created in the image of God, I understood more fully the profound significance of Peter's admonishment. And as I've shared that story to countless students and my own sons as we discuss demeaned individuals in literature and life, I remain aware that my first and perhaps most enduring lesson in recognizing the innate value of each human life came when 14-year-old Peter Orner challenged me to understand that the person I was degrading was indeed a human being.
Unsurprisingly, Orner's fiction invariably expresses the humanity of his characters, implicitly communicating that each character merits his audience's empathy. Indeed, as Margot Livesey wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "Orner doesn't simply bring his characters to life, he gives them souls." Or as Gerald Sorin astutely observed in Tel Aviv's Haaretz, Orner displays a "Jewish sensibility" demonstrated by "his expression of rachmones [Yiddish for "compassion"] on every page."
But Orner's rachmones toward a certain character particularly haunts me. The character is Phillip, the difficult brother, father, and husband who appears in three of Orner's books. I immediately recognized that Phillip was based on Peter's father. So it was with some trepidation that, after finishing Love and Shame and Love, I wrote Peter, having been out of touch for far too many years, highlighting Phillip as my favorite character. I feared my words might hurt or offend Peter, but he told me my comment meant a great deal to him. He said that as an author whose job is "to demonstrate the humanity of [his] subjects" (and I marveled at the consistency of his diction three decades later), he was grateful I felt he depicted Phillip successfully. But Peter valued my affection for Phillip for a more personal reason: his father was dying. Peter sent me a recently published essay which included his reflections on the disparity between his father's present weakened, confused condition and the misplaced strength he exhibited earlier, when he would "instill such fear" and "rage about such nonsense." (Orner revised this essay as a chapter of Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live , which I review in "Stories Begetting Stories," Books & Culture, November/December 2016.)
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.
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."
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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