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'Maggie Brown & Others' review: Peter Orner plays it safe with latest short fiction series

"Maggie Brown & Others," by Peter Orner.

"Maggie Brown & Others," by Peter Orner. Photo Credit: Little, Brown and Company / Pawel Kruk

Peter Orner’s new collection of short fiction, “Maggie Brown & Others,” is like a window into a writer’s mind. It comprises more than 40 works, from one-page vignettes to longer stories, organized in themed sections, plus a novella.

Rather than discard the short shorts — many of which are forgettable — for a stronger, more compact volume, Orner leaves it all on the pages, almost mimicking the memories one accumulates over a lifetime: one story about this person, a fragment of that event, a scrap of the time such-and-such occurred.

His debut, “Esther Stories” (2001), as well as his 2013 collection “Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge,” both featured the same format (although without a novella), and “Maggie Brown” even revisits many characters and locations of the prior volumes, notably Walt and Sarah Kaplan of Fall River, Massachusetts. All this consistency is great news for Orner’s fans, but perhaps represents a bit of an Achilles’ heel for the author, as there is little that feels new in this new book.

Orner is a skilled writer who can be incredibly moving. Several stories stand out, including those previously published by the New Yorker (“My Dead”), New York Times (“Allston”), and Paris Review (“Ineffectual Tribute to Len”). All three are about young men (possibly the same young man) growing up in the Midwest.

His recurring characters, especially Walt Kaplan in the novella, faintly evoke those of giants like Roth and Bellow, with the result being a sense that Orner’s writing, like Walt, is living in the past.

Walt and his friend whisper about the waitress’s backside. They refer to “the Chinaman.” Walt and Sarah only push their separate beds together for “carnal relations” — which Walt excels at “like a hero.” With so much exciting contemporary fiction, do we really want to revisit Fall River?

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