4 generations of 'Love and Shame and Love' in Chicago

November 22, 2011

By Donna Seaman

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(flickr/Steve Rhodes)
Chicago native Peter Orner will discuss his book 'Love and Shame and Love' Tuesday at Barbara’s Bookstore.

Author Peter Orner lives in San Francisco but his hometown of Chicago provided the setting for his new book: Love and Shame and Love. Orner’s book tracks protagonist Alexander Popper and his family over four generations—as their lives shift and change.

Peter Orner will discuss Love and Shame and Love Tuesday evening at Barbara’s Bookstore at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Donna Seaman shared her review on Eight Forty-Eight.

This fall’s pick for the Chicago Public Library’s One Book, One Chicago program, Saul Bellow’s masterpiece, The Adventures of Augie March, glints and shimmers beneath the vibrant surface of Chicago native Peter Orner’s new novel, Love and Shame and Love, like a pencil drawing beneath a watercolor. But the episodic, time-bending structure of the Chicago family saga, as well as its deep wistfulness and droll humor, are Orner’s own.

The opening scene, set in Chicago in 1984, recounts a rite of passage for the Jewish sons of Jewish lawyers. Alexander Popper, the novel’s young, watchful hero, has an audience with Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, a child of Maxwell Street who rose to become a legendary figure in Chicago politics. The judge is the first in a string of historic figures who make crucial cameo appearances in Orner’s incisive portrait of Chicago as a city of grit and magic, patronage and prejudice, struggle and resurrection.

Turn the page and find a lively line drawing of a room with an unmade bed flanked by a crate holding up a stack of books. This is first in a series of illustrations by Peter Orner’s cartoonist brother Eric Orner. Appearing between chapters, these expressive drawings enhance the novel’s verve and punctuate its mosaic composition.

Next, we read a very short chapter that alludes to Playboy bunnies in the 1970s and introduces us to Alexander’s brilliant and reticent older brother, Leo. The scene shifts to 1988: Alexander is a writing student madly infatuated with Kat Rubin, an earthy and irreverent philosophy major from Wisconsin. A fraught romance ensues.

Now we’re reading a letter written in 1944 by Seymour Popper, Alexander’s grandfather. We gradually figure out that Seymour enlisted at age 39, in spite of having a beautiful wife, ballerina-wannabe Bernice; a daughter, Esther, and a son, Philip—Alexander’s future father. Seymour’s cajoling, romantic, sarcastic, clever and desperate letters to unresponsive Bernice chart his churning loneliness, fear and determination, and tell the story of their maddening-yet-enduring marriage.

Philip and his wife Miriam are also ill-matched temperamentally; and sensitive Alexander witnesses their clashes with bafflement and dismay. Attorney Philip is impatient and work-obsessed; Miriam is smart, soulful and frustrated. She cares about the world and talks Alexander through the horrors of the late 1960s: The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the riots in Chicago, all described with fresh insights and outrage.

Miriam misses the city after the Poppers move to Highland Park. But that decorous suburb of vast lawns and immense houses isn’t quite as tidy and predictable as it appears. The grandest mansion of them all has fallen into ruin. Taken over by the Park District, it is now the partially condemned home of the chief of maintenance, a Haitian forced into exile and his resilient family. His oldest son, Manny, becomes Alexander’s first, and for a long time, only friend.

Pithy, vivid, imaginative and poignant, Orner’s novel traces the cultural arc from a swanky night club where Alexander’s grandparents Seymour and Bernice watch the Rat Pack clowning onstage to their grandson dropping acid at a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert at Alpine Valley. Painterly descriptions capture Chicago’s moody light and Great Lake, extreme weather and insistent pulse and push, while embracing cicadas and alewives, Nazis in Skokie and the White Sox at Comiskey Park, the killer heat wave and serenity at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

In Peter Orner’s tour de force, Love and Shame and Love, ambition and power are honed against the stones of hate, connection and cash. Strong women protest injustices private and public. Men struggle to reconcile the pragmatic and the profound. Shameful secrets are held and ransomed. And love is betrayed and resurrected and sustained.