Twenty-five years ago, the late Carol Bly published an essay called “Bad Government and Silly Literature.” Her argument — which seemed obvious to me only after she had pointed it out — is that our literary fiction exhibits a strange blank spot: Novel after novel presents characters who exist in a parallel universe where politics is effectively omitted. “If an American were to turn out a novel or story in which men and women characters consorted together without mention of physical desire,” Bly wrote, “we would wonder in reviews and at lunch why the author suppressed sexuality.” But we consider the suppression of political concerns in fiction entirely normal. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, awakened a number of authors from that slumber, but we still read many fine novels in which characters never worry about their government, their representatives and the affairs of their state in the ordinary way that most real people do when watching the news, complaining about a parking ticket or deciding how to vote.
That’s one of the refreshing aspects of Peter Orner’s “Love and Shame and Love”: It isn’t a political novel per se, but the Chicago men and women who inhabit these pages exist in a world we recognize, where government is as common a topic of thought and conversation as relationships, work and kids. Drawing on his own history, Orner sifts freely through three generations of the Popper family, which moves from Chicago to Highland Park in the great suburban expansion after World War II. They’re “a modern ironical family” who say proudly, “We’re Democrats before we’re Jews.” Lawyers, mostly, they live off the city power structure as long as it runs, worship Mayor Richard J. Daley, and hitch their national hopes to Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.