“How many good stories have been lost because writers slaved away their best years larding unnecessary words onto a story that never needed them?” asked Peter Orner in his previous book, Am I Alone Here?, and for the most part he avoids verbiage in his new story collection, Maggie Brown & Others.
The book is primarily organized in clusters of short and very short stories, each revolving around a theme or place. We move from Marin County to Chicago in the 1980s and meet renters and “castaways” and others whose lives are adrift. Although they are occasionally set abroad, these are very American stories, full of characters struggling with unsatisfying jobs and difficult relatives and partners. Through the first 200 pages, the pacing is superb, with each work of fiction given just enough room to bring its world to light before it snaps shut on a memorable last line.
Ironically, given Orner’s dedication to short-short fiction, he ends Maggie Brown & Others with a 100-page novella, “Walt Kaplan Is Broke.” Granted, some of the chapters are very brief, almost resembling prose poems, and Orner tries hard to give the fading industrial town of Fall River, Massachusetts, some mythological sheen. However, the protagonist is such an unlucky mensch that it’s hard as a reader not to feel that you, too, have become enmeshed in his largely uneventful life.