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.
Alexander Popper, the youngest son of the last generation, serves as the modest but haunting central character, a man suffering from “furious hysterical loneliness.” As a child, he’s sensitive and sullen, subject to the usual humiliations and frustrations of adolescent boys. As an adult, he’s afflicted with chronic nostalgia, “baffled by the ruthless piling of the years.” Quiet and depressive, he’s torn between wanting to remember his family history and wanting to forget it. In a scene late in the novel, we see him trying to wrap his hand around dust floating in the attic — a typically lovely, mournful image from an author who specializes in them.
It isn’t immediately apparent, but the story is a jumbled collection of Alexander’s memories, melancholy anecdotes held aloft by wry humor, visions that rise “out of a crack in the day, out of the anarchy of his awake dreams.” His grandparents rode the Chicago machine, a vaudeville of outsized leaders who managed a vast network of patronage. Before Alexander’s parents divorced, they ran with a more suburban crowd in the 1960s and ’70s but found themselves subject to similar competitions and betrayals in their tense, loveless home. Orner has a fine ear for distinguishing these eras, the changing manner of marriage and labor, the way people talk, the city nightclubs giving way to neighborhood get-togethers. And later, in the ’90s, when Alexander is a college student in love with a bold, witty woman, Orner captures the times just as accurately with an engaging blend of silly and intellectual patter that’s distinctly modern.
But the most striking aspect of this novel (besides the wistful line drawings by the author’s brother) is its airy structure. Our impressions of the Popper family gradually accrete over hundreds of short moments, running along the three freely intertwined time periods. Many of these are only two or three pages long; some are just a brief paragraph. It’s a sprawling collection of vignettes about the evolution of a great city and the dissipation of an average family. This meandering chronology gradually begins to place later events in poignant juxtaposition to earlier scenes of hope and optimism. What emerges is the history of a man trying to feel loved, watching his parents and grandparents falling apart, and seeing politics as some larger expression of belonging that never quite satisfies.
“Call this a vision of nothing much,” Orner writes, before describing Alexander at 12, hesitating to join in the fun at the public pool. Of course, that claim to “nothing much” is wholly ironic. Orner’s short stories have won two Pushcart Prizes and a spot in 2001’s “The Best American Short Stories.” No less an eminence than Marilynne Robinson has praised the “true beauty” of his writing. A teacher at San Francisco State University, he’s unusually gifted at creating freighted moments of despair that generate far more impact than their size would suggest. There’s a short piece in “Love and Shame and Love” about a fishing vacation — “Chain O’Lakes” — that’s line-by-line perfect, from its hilarious opening image of Alexander’s mother sitting in the boat in her mink coat to its mournful climax. An anecdote about gym class — “The Hill” — plays with the cliches of middle school, but then sneaks up and devastates you. In another extraordinary piece of minimalism — just a single page called “1233 North Damen” — Alexander sits alone in his apartment listening to a trapped mouse die. It shouldn’t work, but it does, powerfully.
Other vignettes, though, strain for importance and beg for a less tolerant editorial hand. These little isolated pieces put extraordinary pressure on the novelist’s style: Paragraphs we might have happily sailed through sometimes sink under the burden of being set alone on a blank page. So many sighs of despair in a row risk making the story hyperventilate. When Alexander’s girlfriend accuses him of loving melancholy more than anything else, she may have hit on his problem as well as this novel’s. For some readers, like me, that’s a lovable weakness. As Alexander says, “I’m trying to write a sad story, a good, sad story.” Orner has done that.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
LOVE AND SHAME AND LOVE
By Peter Orner
439 pp. $24.99