‘Love, Shame’ and Big Sky influence: American promise story set in Chicago

2011-12-04T07:15:00Z ‘Love, Shame’ and Big Sky influence: American promise story set in ChicagoBy KATIE KANE for the Missoulian missoulian.com
December 04, 2011 7:15 am  • 

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.

 

Copyright 2015 missoulian.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

No Comments Posted.

Missoulian Civil Dialogue Policy

Civil Dialogue Policy for Commenting on Missoulian.com

We provide this community forum for readers to exchange ideas and opinions on the news of the day. Passionate views, pointed criticism and critical thinking are welcome. Comments can only be submitted by registered users. By posting comments on our site, you are agreeing to the following terms:

Commentary and photos submitted to the Missoulian (Missoulian.com) may be published or distributed in print, electronically or other forms. Opinions expressed in Missoulian.com's comments reflect the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of the Missoulian or its parent company. See the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy for more information.

Our guidelines prohibit the solicitation of products or services, the impersonation of another site user, threatening or harassing postings and the use of vulgar, abusive, obscene or sexually oriented language, defamatory or illegal material. You may not post content that degrades others on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability or other classification. It's fine to criticize ideas, but ad hominem attacks on other site users are prohibited. Users who violate those standards may lose their privileges on missoulian.com.

You may not post copyrighted material from another publication. (Link to it instead, using a headline or very brief excerpt.)

No short policy such as this can spell out all possible instances of material or behavior that we might deem to be a violation of our publishing standards, and we reserve the right to remove any material posted to the site.

Add Comment
You must Login to comment.

Click here to get an account it's free and quick

Missoula Art Museum’s Ruby Jubilee

Celebrating four decades of contemporary art

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

JuBELLation Handbell Choir of Missoula First United Methodist Church plays "We Wish You a Me…

Holly & the Ivy

Holly & the Ivy

JuBELLation Handbell Choir of Missoula First United Methodist Church plays "Holly and the Ivy."

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the Bleak Midwinter

JuBELLation Handbell Choir of Missoula First United Methodist Church plays "In the Bleak Midwinter."

Deck the Halls

Deck the Halls

JuBELLation Handbell Choir from Missoula First United Methodist Church plays "Deck the Halls."

The Missoulian gears up for the biggest paper of 2014

The Missoulian gears up for the biggest paper of 2014

Join editor Sherry Devlin in the pressroom for the details on our Thanksgiving newspaper.

RMBT in Rong' an County, China

RMBT in Rong' an County, China

* Members of RMBT explore Qilou Street, the oldest sector of Rong' an which was a thriving a…

RMBT in Rong' an.

RMBT in Rong' an.

Members of the RMBT greet fans after their performance in Rong' an.

RMBT at Sias International University

RMBT at Sias International University

A compilation of video from the RMBT's performances at Sias International University.

RMBT at Zhengzhou Normal University

RMBT at Zhengzhou Normal University

A compilation of video from the RMBT's warm-ups and performances at Zhengzhou Normal University.

Deals & Offers