Peter Orner's new novel "Love and Shame and Love" was finished in Montana.
The University of Montana Creative Writing Department's visiting Kittredge writer in 2010, Orner says that it was being in Montana that allowed him to pull together what is a stylistically compelling epic of the American century as seen through the lens of Chicago, with its ward bosses, ethnic boundary lines and big shoulders. That world is revealed most centrally in the love and shame of the Poppers, a multi-generational Jewish family.
"Montana has a certain kindness that reminded me of the Midwest," says Orner.
It was an atmosphere that allowed him to complete the book. While Missoula's community of writers offered Orner important fellowship, Montana's natural environment contributed to what is a novel of place, a story about a city that lies some 1,500 miles east.
While in Montana, Orner wrote everywhere: in a Marshall Street music studio owned by Bill and Beth Mize; in the Masonic building on Broadway; in the "great library on University of Montana's campus"; while wandering the Rattlesnake Valley; and, perhaps most appropriately, in the Izaak Walton Inn on the edge of Glacier National Park.
"It was the atmosphere of Montana that allowed me to collect my thoughts and get the book put together."
And how the book is put together results in something akin to a sonata penned by Chekhov, with multiple movements, themes and sections fused together in the service of a wide-ranging, large-scale history of an American democracy of the heart.
Orner, who comes from Chicago in the way that James Joyce came from Dublin, uses the Second City to explore what amounts to serial romantic and political monogamy. The book is about politics and passion. In telling the story of the Poppers, a family of lawyers, would-be politicians, ballet dancers, restless women and gimlet-eyed children, Orner makes clear how much America promised in the 20th century and the cost of committing to that dream. Almost everyone in this family, whose ancestral roots lie in the shetls of Eastern Europe, rises in the novel. Seymour, the patriarch whose heroes were "Barry Goldwater and Don Rickles, in that order" and who claims the Chicago stockyards as his birthright, becomes an insurance magnate. His wife Bernice dances ballet into late age. Their son Philip is a lawyer, and his son Alexander - the novel's protagonist Popper - also becomes a lawyer.
But as Alexander begins to understand while accompanying his mother as she collects data for the 1980 census, it can be hard "to confront even the most basic questions about your life. Who do you live with? Who don't you live with?" The novel is, in its own terms, a census of that sort - recording and remembering a love as fleeting as the light that "comes like honey" through the elms on neighborhood avenues, registering the fires in Chicago after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and recalling the history of the eternal question of "The Mayor."
One could call the book a novel of the nation, but that would be to ignore its countless modulations to keys other than the dominant one. For Orner's novel, like a sonata, does a hundred things at once. It makes you laugh against your will at the image of a mouse stuck to a glue trap the night of a wrenching relationship breakdown: "You never see a room more clearly than after someone leaves it and a mouse is begging for its life in the kitchen."
This is the laughter of Kafka and Welty, a laughter that asks you to take seriously the vagaries and violences of human life, but also to distance yourself from them. The novel is gentler, too, reminding you what it is like to remember - your first sexual encounter, your first love, your first shame, your bicycles and games, your first ballot cast. And "Love and Shame and Love" is interested, too, in how we remember.
"The thing itself is nothing to the lies we tell about it," Orner writes. Orner uses a Shahrazad's bag of storytelling tricks to remember and represent. The novel acts by turns like a Shakespearean drama, a lyric poem, an epistolary exchange, a Tom Petty album, a Chekhov short story and a redaction of Ulysses.
Beyond all this, "Love and Shame and Love" is the only place in which you will find the mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne, dancing naked in a pair of white heels on her high-rise patio for the entertainment of her ex-reporter lover who is watching from the next building over. You'll find love and shame and love in this image of public passion and political gamesmanship, and in the rest of this tour-de-force novel.
Katie Kane is an associate professor of English at the University of Montana.