November 09, 2011

Portrait of a Chicago family

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Peter Orner is the type of novelist creative writing students aspire to be: contemplative, astute, equally interested in comedy and pain, governed by a dedication to characterization and description over archetypical plot. He is the kind of writer who creates a world not by describing it from the onset, but by carefully laying down pieces, then stepping back and letting his reader deduce the rest.

His newest novel, Love and Shame and Love, is no exception, detailing 50 years in the life of one Chicago family through moments both small and large.

Alexander Popper is the book’s smart, shy and remarkably likeable main character, and when we first meet him it’s via a “portrait of the artist as creative writing major” (good to see Orner can poke fun at himself) as he courts a classmate amidst the Bush/Dukakis election. But no sooner has our hero secured his prize, than Orner jumps back in time, detailing the marriages of three generations of Poppers, all earnest, Jewish Democrats navigating class, desire, love and shame.

We follow Popper’s grandparents as they brush shoulders with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior (they happen to be friends with Chicago’s preeminent gossip columnist) and Popper’s parents as they move to the suburbs while trying to retain their Lincoln Park intellectualism. The most compelling story might be that of Hollis Osgood, the Poppers’ beloved—if woefully misunderstood—“houseman.”

Interspersed are Popper’s grandfather’s 1940s wartime letters (the theme is desperation; turns out his wife Bernice is barely writing him back) and lovely, folksy line drawings, courtesy of the author’s brother, comic-book writer Eric Orner.

But as much as this honest and understated novel is about family dynamics, it’s also about Chicago itself—the corruption, the hope and the constant change that only such an authentically American city could endure. Orner playfully intersects his characters’ lives with those of real political figures (Walter Mondale plays an important role, for instance). But the affect is not some smug, Forrest Gump-type knowingness. Rather, it’s a reminder that the personal is political, that the plight of families is the plight of an entire nation.

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