The short-story collection is a deceptive and profoundly stubborn animal. Regardless of a collection's specific focus or theme, the struggle for balance is a more or less universal concern—a single story can be a perfectly successful entity on its own, but when it’s assembled with a few dozen of its associates, the result is often more of a medley than a functioning narrative. It’s a subtle distinction, but it can mean the difference between a serviceable anthology and a lasting memorandum by an author who is truly committed to the form.

The latest collection from Peter Orner, the critically acclaimed author of Esther Stories and 2011's Love and Shame and Love, navigates that dilemma as well as one could ask. Coming in at just under 200 pages, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge offers up more than 50 takes on the subjects of loss and memory’s role in shaping our perception of life’s bleakest moments. Yet, despite its length and story count, the assortment seems neither rushed nor cobbled together out of necessity. Orner’s stories are brief, to be sure, but he never leaves them unfinished, never broaches a subject without a clear sense of purpose or lingers too long once his point his made.

Peter Orner
Powell's Books on Hawthorne
August 19 at 7:30
Though Sagamore Bridge is rooted in Orner’s native Midwest, the collection makes occasional sojourns beyond that jurisdiction, its characters traveling from an infamous New England estuary, to a stark Soviet prison, to the inside of a dusty and meticulously pilfered Chicago vault. All the while, Orner explores the mind’s capacity to drive us forward in spite of the weight of circumstances that aim to hold us back. His stories, alternately devastating (“Foley’s Pond,” “Spokane”), suspenseful (“February 26, 1995”), plaintive (“At the Fairmont,” “Pampkin’s Lament”), and unexpectedly humorous (“Longfellow”), ultimately come together to provide a brisk but considered celebration of obstinacy.
 

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