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Past Perfected/Great Escapes

The Imaginary Family History of Peter Orner

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Over the last few years Peter Orner's come home to write about Rogers Park, the neighborhood he never lived in. The results are several melancholy and moving tales in Esther Stories, his recently published collection of short stories that capture the spirit of a north-side Jewish neighborhood that's long gone.

"I'm a suburban kid," says Orner. "But my identity's in Rogers Park."

The fact is, he's moved around so much he's really not from anywhere. After graduating from Highland Park High School in 1986, he lived in Ann Arbor, Cincinnati, Boston, Namibia, Prague, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. "I guess you can say I'm a drifter," says Orner. "After college I wound up in Washington, where I waited on tables. Then I went to Africa to teach English in Namibia as part of WorldTeach."

In 1996, he thought he might want to be a criminal defense lawyer, so he enrolled in law school at Northeastern University in Boston: "I passed the bar, but I never practiced. It's not for me. The classes were so boring. Trusts and estates was particularly miserable. The teacher would just drone on and on. In reality, all I wanted to do was write."

So in 1999 he enrolled at the writers workshop at the University of Iowa and earned an MFA in creative fiction. Since then he's moved from one teaching job to the next. He's now teaching literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

His strongest stories are set in Chicago. Eight of the stories in his collection are about Jewish families living in walk-ups along Lunt and Fargo and Pratt. They send their kids to Sullivan or Senn High School and scramble to make enough money to get out of Rogers Park. Once they've made it to the North Shore, however, they find themselves longing for the good old days that never existed.

In particular, Orner has created three generations of Burmans, whose trajectory from Rogers Park in the 50s to Highland Park in the 80s is revealed in several stories. The patriarch, Seymour Burman, harbors horrible secrets from his days on a naval cruiser in World War II, and he makes his living running a small insurance company. The matriarch is Bernice, who almost studied dance with "the great Lincoln Kirstein" and now teaches ballet to neighborhood kids "in the ballet studio above Al Fonroy's Shirts and Slacks on Touhy Avenue." The daughter, Esther, is worshiped by friends and family for her beauty (she looks like a young Elizabeth Taylor). And then there's Philip, the son, who will eventually move his family to Highland Park.

The stories are narrated by Philip's son Alex, who's roughly Orner's age and shares his North Shore perspective. "My relationship to Chicago is that of a Jewish boy growing up in Highland Park. It's the magical place my parents and their friends always talk about. The truth is that Highland Park bores me so much. It's easier to identify with Chicago. I think suburban places have less character than Rogers Park. It's normal, I think, to project yourself as being from a place that has more interesting things about it. Actually, when I was growing up in Highland Park I think it had more character than it does today. I mean, at least we had a Woolworth's in the downtown. Now you've got people knocking down houses to build McMansions. Nobody gives a damn about the past. They destroy their history.

"But with Rogers Park, people try to preserve the history. When my family tells stories it's not about Highland Park, it's about Rogers Park. It's almost like life never ended there. I was always fascinated with the Rogers Park stories. I always listened. I think I have a sense of the cadence--not just what they say, but how they say it. I used to drive around Rogers Park a lot. I'd walk around a lot. I looked up the old addresses and stood on the corner and soaked it up. That's the world I want to re-create. I'm interested in people who stayed kind of close to where they're from, something I wish I did more of."

The quintessential Rogers Park story is "The House on Lunt Avenue." It opens on an early Monday morning in November 1954. "Seymour Burman shouts at his son Philip, the boy who will become my father. It is ten before seven and Seymour's anger smells of Scotch. Philip is eighteen and has flunked out of the University of Illinois. He lies on his old bed with a pillow over his face. The room stinks of filthy socks."

Soon Seymour's raging at Philip--"you're a miserable lazy"--and threatening to kick him out of the house because he shows no drive or ambition.

Not knowing what else to do, Philip meets Shirl, his father's secretary, at Charlie Boo's, a scummy little neighborhood tavern. They have a few drinks and head over to her apartment "on the third floor of a walk-up." They wind up in her bed. The next morning Philip's back where he started, alone, confused, and alienated.

In a way it's a creepy story. Alex is like a voyeur, peering under the curtain to glimpse a scene his father would probably want to remain hidden. "I want to emphasize that I'm not Alex and Philip's not my dad--this is not autobiographical," says Orner. "There's probably more of me in Philip than my father. True, I never lived in Rogers Park. But I know what it's like to be 18 years old and drifting. I've done a lot of drifting--I can relate to that.

"My father's been a very good sport about this, he's been very supportive. He did used to live on Lunt, though. The cover of the book shows a picture of my grandmother Lorraine on the front porch of her Lunt Street house. She was a dancer and she still teaches dance. You know how it is--you take a little from here and you take a little from there and you create a story."

He wrote the first draft of "The House on Lunt Avenue" in 1996, when he was living in Boston. "I was writing in a coffee shop in Cambridge. I finished in the summer of 2000, when I was back visiting friends in Africa. I kept returning to the story. I wanted to get it right."

The collection is the result of almost a decade of steady writing. Most of the stories have been published in smaller magazines. "The Raft," Seymour's recollection of a war crime, was included in The Best American Short Stories 2001, a compilation edited by Barbara Kingsolver.

Since being published last month, the book has generated strong reviews, particularly in the New York Times Book Review. "Orner is a true democrat," wrote reviewer Margot Livesey. "Most of his characters struggle to hang onto even one of the fundamental rights--life, love, the pursuit of happiness--but every character, young or old, well-to-do or broke, maimed or whole, is worthy of the author's insight and eloquence."

His publisher, Houghton Mifflin, has sent Orner on a national tour. This Saturday, November 17, he'll do a reading at the Barnes & Noble in Deerfield.

"It'll be good to be in Chicago, even if it's for a few days. I'm sort of settled in California right now, but I haven't lost touch. There will be more Rogers Park stories. I'll always be coming back to Rogers Park."

Great Escapes

Last winter Zak Mucha showed up at the Columbus-Maryville Children's Reception Center, an emergency shelter in Uptown. He wasn't looking for shelter. He was a 29-year-old novelist taking a job because he needed extra cash. What he saw was pretty surprising, but nothing was quite as surprising as the library.

There was none. "Well, actually there was this one shelf with, I think, five books," says Mucha. "It had, let me see if I can remember, an encyclopedia, a Mark Twain book--I can't remember which one--a book by Judy Blume, and Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. How that got there I don't know. I guess someone dropped it off. It's sort of a goofy collection when you think about it."

The institution on Montrose just west of the lake "offers emergency shelter for kids who are wards of the state," Mucha explains. "This is the shelter they come to while they're in court or waiting for foster parents."

Mucha worked at Maryville only five months, but the absence of books weighed on his mind even after he left. "I wasn't a really big reader when I was these kids' age, but once I started it opened a lot of things up. If the books are there and a couple of guys get started reading them, it could be a huge change. These kids come from the worst socioeconomic family backgrounds you can think of. Reading is one escape. Anything that can perk their interest in something other than being a player is good."

He found a supporter in Megan McCarthy, a Maryville caseworker. "We've had some books over the years that tend to walk out with the kids," says McCarthy. "I don't have a problem with that, because as long as they enjoy the books that's the point. They haven't had a lot of exposure to reading. I love to read. My favorite book is Wuthering Heights. I don't know if that would go over big here, but you never know."

Over the last few months, Mucha's helped McCarthy gradually assemble a modest collection. "I sent letters to various comic book companies and we got some good responses," says Mucha. "I think comic books are a great bridge to deeper reading. It's a start."

They've also brought in some Star Trek and Goosebumps and Stephen King novels. Now they want to take it a step further. On December 5, Mucha's holding a benefit at the Chopin Theatre (1543 W. Division). Local writers Don De Grazia, Achy Obejas, Tony Fitzpatrick, Kent Gowran, Zenny Sadlon, and Mike Joyce will read from their work. Mucha will read from his novel, The Beggars' Shore, which he set in a rundown section of Uptown not far from Maryville. (For more information, call the Chopin at 773-278-1500.) "We'll charge $3 to get in and everyone has to bring a book as a donation," says Mucha. "I don't know if we can make lifetime readers out of these guys. It's just that books can give them an option they should know is there."

The painful irony about the benefit is that it comes four months after library commissioner Mary Dempsey ordered the destruction of about 30,000 books at the Sulzer Regional Library, which is about a mile west of Maryville. Dempsey contends the books at Sulzer were old and obsolete. But among the discarded volumes were classics by Twain, Faulkner, Kipling, and Royko that might have gone over big at Maryville.

"I was pissed to hear about that--it really is a waste to throw away so many books," says Mucha. "It would have taken three phone calls to any shelter or senior-citizen center and Sulzer could have put those books to good use. I know we could have used them."

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