If you asked what makes a good short story, you’d receive all sorts of requirements…depending on who you asked.
Many would agree on the essentials:
A story that hooks you right from the start.
Of course, a satisfying ending.
Beyond that, the waters become a bit murkier.
With so little time and space to make a mark, every word must count. Perhaps the most striking aspect, the length of a short story, varies widely. Although most people generally expect at least a few pages, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge shows a story’s capacity to function outside this border.
Author of 2011 novel Love and Shame and Love and Esther Stories, Peter Orner’s second anthology impressively includes more than 50 short stories in under 200 pages—some less than a page, others near a dozen—detailing moments, memories and lives of compelling characters, young and old. Orner, who works primarily in his San Francisco garage, often draws on memories of people or events for inspiration.
His stories address family, love, death…and sometimes laughter. Using his native Chicago area as the platform for much of his writing, Orner explores the range of human emotion and perspective deftly through vividly imagined, often heavily flawed characters. If a few stories seem too short and somewhat incomplete, many of the longer ones produce exceptional results. Whether extreme brevity works for some stories remains debatable. The quality of Orner’s writing does not.
In “The Vac-Haul,” a man describes his time in a sewage truck with silent Larry Phoebus. The pair works while listening to a news broadcast of a nearby school shooting on the radio. The narrator reflects on his time spent in the presence of a man he knew nothing about:
“I listened to the old man’s wheezy breathing in the stagnant air. I watched the side of his gaunt face and tried to think of something to say. Things must have been so different when you were a young kid, huh, Larry? How were things when you were young, Larry? Let’s turn off the radio and talk, Larry. You and me. Tell me your life, Larry. I’ll listen. Who’d you love, Larry? You must have loved somebody.”
The story concludes without actually solving any problem, but who can say an alternate course would have been better? “Horace and Josephine,” a longer story of a family gone from rich to poor, boasts one of the collection’s best endings, but it requires more time to develop its wonderful characters:
“Josephine crossed her legs and asked what we thought of Andy Warhol. Didn’t we think his significance somewhat overstated? After stammering and sipping our tea, we were released to Horace, who was waiting in that spare bedroom with his pipe. We took turns kissing his fuzzled faced. He was sitting in the only chair. He motioned us to sit on the bed. A gnarled man, he seemed to shrink every summer. He stood, clapped his hands, and sputtered smoke into my brother’s face.”
In this case, a shorter story would fail to produce an ending of equal potency. Orner, a Professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, has carefully chosen where to cut things off without hurting the story’s overall quality.
The longer pieces contain much of his best work, but Orner excels in telling a story, or constructing somewhat of a vignette, in very few words.
Take, for example, the unnamed half-page shorts that resemble diary entries. One, about an overweight junior lifeguard, might not tell much of an actual story or unravel a series of events, but the young man’s captivating thoughts of wanting to save a life justify its inclusion.
Another rare comedic story describes a man in his seventies going back to his hippie roots. He re-opens his father’s old 18-room palace and hosts grand parties. The brief, well-written snippets capture a particular place, time and mood.
“Detamble” tells of the safety one family feels on its small, quiet street…despite the murder of a neighboring couple.
“We didn’t lock our doors any more than we had before. Everybody knew this wasn’t the beginning of a crime wave. No omen. It was simply an aberration. Our town has always been a safe place to raise your kids. Detamble, like so many of our leafy streets, is peaceful. Nothing ever happens on Detamble. It’s mathematical. But don’t you need some sort of break in the normal for there to be normal in the first place?”
This passage near the end acts as a fine example of Orner’s ability to provide a glimpse of a moment or memory before steering the tale into a workable ending.
Ironically, the brief title story most feels like it could have been extended. The story is built around the lingering reflection of a single event; Walt Kaplan, furniture salesman, revisits the day he saved his daughter’s life:
“You were two years old and your feet were like a short fat man’s thumbs. I ever tell you that? That your feet were like a short fat man’s thumbs? Every time you tell anything, you have to add something new. And your father, great and fearless father, carries his daughter to the mainland in his Chrysler Imperial steed. Last car over the Sagamore Bridge before the hurricane of ’38 sent half the Cape into the Atlantic. They called it the Long Island Express.”
As readers, we only receive a peek at this family’s life. When the story ends, we see no more of them, and here it feels a bit short. Another story ends with the main character saying “Don’t touch me” after the listener interrupts her story. Again, the momentum of the story hits the wall at an awkward spot. In some cases, such a seemingly questionable ending really does fit better; we simply don’t want to accept it because it doesn’t coincide with what we expected, or, perhaps more selfishly, wanted.
Peter Orner concerns himself more with how he presents his stories than the subject matter itself. Whether you agree with that philosophy, you cannot deny his talent as a writer. He succeeds tremendously in creating a spectrum of views for genuine, relatable characters in testing situations.
By the end of Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, we’ve been treated to a vast array of stories that work as an ensemble, despite some weaker points. Though some plots feel thinner than others, and some stories might end too soon, the writing itself never falters. A few downright amazing short stories stir emotions and thoughts, embedding richly defined characters and powerful moments into the mind.
They remain long after the book has been put away.
Carlo Sobral is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.