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Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live

Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live

by Peter Orner

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A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Criticism

“Stories, both my own and those I’ve taken to heart, make up whoever it is that I’ve become,” Peter Orner writes in this collection of essays about reading, writing, and living. Orner reads—and writes—everywhere he finds himself: a hospital cafeteria, a coffee


A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Criticism

“Stories, both my own and those I’ve taken to heart, make up whoever it is that I’ve become,” Peter Orner writes in this collection of essays about reading, writing, and living. Orner reads—and writes—everywhere he finds himself: a hospital cafeteria, a coffee shop in Albania, or a crowded bus in Haiti. The result is “a book of unlearned meditations that stumbles into memoir.” Among the many writers Orner addresses are Isaac Babel and Zora Neale Hurston, both of whom told their truths and were silenced; Franz Kafka, who professed loneliness but craved connection; Robert Walser, who spent the last twenty-three years of his life in a Swiss insane asylum, “working” at being crazy; and Juan Rulfo, who practiced the difficult art of silence. Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty, Yasunari Kawabata, Saul Bellow, Mavis Gallant, John Edgar Wideman, William Trevor, and Václav Havel make appearances, as well as the poet Herbert Morris—about whom almost nothing is known.

An elegy for an eccentric late father, and the end of a marriage, Am I Alone Here? is also a celebration of the possibility of renewal. At once personal and panoramic, this book will inspire readers to return to the essential stories of their own lives.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Nicholas Dames
What Orner ponders is the oscillation between reading and living, concentrating on the moment when we look up from the page. Reading takes its color, for Orner, from the ways it is aerated by those interruptions. As a result, this record of his reading life is a fractured memoir…Too irresponsible to be literary criticism, and too irregular to be autobiography, Orner's book…is instead an entrancing attempt to catch what falls between those genres: the irreducibly personal, messy, even embarrassing ways reading and living bleed into each other, which neither literary criticism nor autobiography ever quite acknowledges.
Publishers Weekly
Orner, a distinguished fiction writer (Last Car over the Sagamore Bridge), appears here as a devoted book lover, inviting the reader to an intimate and friendly book group of two. Closely scrutinizing individual stories, he illuminates writers as canonical as Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol, as well-known as Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow, and as far-flung as Álvaro Mutis and Yasunari Kawabata. Eudora Welty gets an eye-opening reading, not as “anybody’s favorite auntie” but as a “badass” writer. The heart of this book is with short-story writers, including, among 21 of them, Gina Berriault, Wright Morris, Breece D’J Pancake, William Trevor, and Robert Walser. Orner’s recollections of reading are always situated in a specific place and moment; in Albania or Haiti, South Carolina or Wisconsin; while he’s searching his book-overstuffed garage for a particular work, or waiting for a traffic light to change; at the hospital where his grandmother dies, or reflecting on the death of his father (for whom this book is very much a memorial). Orner is a pleasure to read, and to read with. Readers will be delighted to join him, grab one of the stories he delves into, and enjoy his company. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

Praise for Am I Alone Here?

A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Criticism

“What Orner ponders is the oscillation between reading and living, concentrating on the moment when we look up from the page. Reading takes its color, for Orner, from the ways it is aerated by those interruptions. . . . Too irresponsible to be literary criticism, and too irregular to be autobiography, Orner's book (with illustrations by his brother, Eric Orner) is instead an entrancing attempt to catch what falls between those genres: the irreducibly personal, messy, even embarrassing ways reading and living bleed into each other, which neither literary criticism nor autobiography ever quite acknowledge.” —Nicholas Dames, New York Times Book Review

“The underlying force of the book is the desire to recover the 'weight of what's vanished' and fiction's alchemical ability to do so.” —The New Yorker

Am I Alone Here? [is] the most beautiful, moving book I’ve read in a very long time, and I’ll use any opportunity to mention it. . . . I encourage anyone who loves reading, I mean who truly loves reading, to immediately go to a bookshop and demand a copy.” —Alexander Maksik, author of Shelter in Place, in The Huffington Post

“Sometimes it's hard to buy a book for a book nerd, because you don't know what they haven't read yet. But any book-lover will be enthralled by this spirited exploration of life as a reader.” —Melissa Ragsdale, Bustle.com, “10 Holiday Book Gifts that Even the Pickiest Person On Your List Will Love”

“Orner, a distinguished fiction writer, appears here as a devoted book lover, inviting the reader to an intimate and friendly book group of two. . . . Readers will be delighted to join him, grab one of the stories he delves into, and enjoy his company.” —Publishers Weekly

Am I Alone Here made me want to close myself in a dusty bookstore for a few months to read until my eyes burn and my soul is washed clean of the trivial. Alone there, yes. But with all the world before me.” —Leilani Clark, The Spine, KQED Arts

“Book lovers will devour these genuine, personal tales about literature and reading.” —Kirkus Reviews

"This book, thank god, defies any category. It's partly an ode to reading, partly a memoir of Chicago and family, partly a travelogue, and often it's all of these things in one four-page essay. Orner reads Cheever in Albania, thinks about Salinger in Haiti, salutes his father from a taqueria in San Francisco. Although some will want to dive in randomly and skip around, reading these exquisite essays in order allows the book to develop a momentum and cumulative power that sneaks up on you and knocks you back." —Dave Eggers, author of Heroes of the Frontier

"I don't mind calling Peter Orner's humane and wonderful Am I Alone Here? a great book. It is lucid about literature and recklessly frank about life. With humor and candor, it punctures the ambivalence about literature in this moronic age and gives us a dynamic reason to go on reading and writing." —Thomas McGuane, author of Crow Fair: Stories

"Peter Orner is one of our most brilliant, most idiosyncratic fiction writers, and with Am I Alone Here? proves himself to be one of our most brilliant, most idiosyncratic essayists, too. The word "essay" doesn't quite do justice to what Orner has done here: part mix tape, part elegy, part celebration, part recommendation list, this book is a lovely, funny, and startlingly honest look at how literature doesn't always do what we want it to, but how we need it anyway. Orner says about one of his favorite books, 'I like to have a copy in every room.' Readers will feel likewise about Am I Alone Here? It is a major accomplishment from one of our most original writers." —Brock Clarke, author of The Happiest People in the World

“The aching, wild quality of the books Orner reads echoes the consolations and heartbreaks of his own life. Am I Alone Here? is an unusual, delicate, utterly beautiful book.” —Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss

"Peter Orner's Am I Alone Here? is a collection of brisk, beautiful essays about reading, and (as a bonus) it's also a wry, self-examining memoir of being a child, a partner, and a parent. It will remind you of important books you've forgotten and make you want to read ones you haven't, and it really will make you feel less alone." —Maile Meloy, author of Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (named one of the Ten Best Books of 2009 by The New York Times Book Review)

Esther Stories (2001)

A New York Times Notable Book
Winner, Rome Fellowship in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters
Finalist, Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award
Finalist, Young Lions Fiction Award, New York Public Library

“A spirit of passionate tenderness broods over these stories. It is as if love, transcending itself, has become a wisdom so perfect it must cherish everything—grace, of course, and awkwardness too, and innocence, and guilt, and haplessness. And, yes, clear-sighted and unhonored loss. The spirit of Esther Stories is, like true beauty, no aesthete, and, like true love, no sentimentalist.”
—Marilynne Robinson

“These are stories of unusual delicacy and beauty, and this is a remarkable collection.”
—Charles Baxter

“Some of Orner's very short stories are the best of that form that I have read since Isaac Babel's.”
—Andre Dubus

“A luminous debut collection.”
—John Freeman, Chicago Tribune

“The subtle arc of these stories, moving through several years and conflicting points of view, achieves an elegiac tone, even as Orner renders the details of family intimacy with sweet precision.”
—Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe

“Peter Orner is that rare find: a young writer who can inhabit any character, traverse any landscape, and yet never stray from the sound of the human heart.”
—Judy Doenges, Washington Post Book World

“I was stunned by a sentence or two in every one of the works in Esther Stories.”
—Rick Moody, Hartford Courant

Esther Stories is a rare and original collection.”
—Joan Silber

“If the short story was in need of a future, it has been found in Peter Orner.”
—Dennis Lehane

“Orner doesn't simply bring his characters to life, he gives them souls … but all would be in vain were it not for Orner's mastery of language.”
—Margot Livesey, New York Times Book Review

“Subtle and leisurely, many of the stories echo the stately despair of Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell's classic 1959 novel.”
—Donna Rifkind, Baltimore Sun
The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (2006)

“Orner hits the right notes and no others.”
—Mark Schone, New York Times Book Review

“This novel, about a white American teacher in Namibia, has the same sort of episodic structure, lyrical prose, and completely hypnotic effect as the novels of Michael Ondaatje …. It's a gorgeously written book, very funny, and bursting with soul.”
—Dave Eggers, Guardian

“A perfectly formed masterpiece …. It reminds me of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano and Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky in its stand-alone brilliance. Everyone who cares about real and beautiful writing needs to read this novel.”
—Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight

“Yearning wrapped in gorgeous prose …. If one of literature's jobs is to take the reader to a new experience, this novel richly succeeds …. Orner writes with such beauty that the reader cannot help but be carried along.”
—Robin Vidimos, Denver Post

“It is rare that you come across a talent as singular as Orner's. Here, in his first novel, is a story never heard before, told in language no one else could write. It is a magnificent creation.”
—Andrew Sean Greer

“Exquisite …. By presenting this tale in so many broken but beautiful shards, Orner has done the seemingly impossible: His novel becomes a kind of living village.”
—John Freeman, San Francisco Chronicle

“Peter Orner's novel is insightful, believable, unbelievable, funny, and not funny at all …. Whether readers know his amazing Esther Stories or not, they should run right out and buy The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo.”
—Ann Beattie

“Quirky, lyrical, comical, full-blown …. A gifted short-story writer gives us his first book-length work of fiction, and does so with flair and panache.”
—Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune

“I read The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo this week and it's amazing …. Great novels can be hard to find and sometimes we have to read a lot of good novels to find one. I thought I would save you the time.”
—Stephen Elliott, author of Happy Baby, in the Huffington Post

“As a work of African provenance, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo will take its place alongside Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King and Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter …. Orner is incapable of dishonoring his characters. He treats all of them—even the minor figures—with a fierce humanity.”
—Steve Almond, Boston Globe

Love and Shame and Love (2011)

California Book Award in Fiction Silver Medal
Finalist for Hadassah Magazine's Ribalow Prize
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A San Francisco Chronicle “Lit Pick”
A Chicago Tribune Editor's Choice

“Elegant yet intimate, this is a book that gets into your head and makes itself at home there …. Like the James Salter of Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime, with their acutely observed domestic and sexual tension …. It doesn't grab for glory, but it wins a big share anyway.”
—Maria Russo, New York Times Book Review

“Beautiful …. Think Saul Bellow (Chicago setting, rollicking Jewish-style comedy) mated with Chekhov (unassuming, devastating detail), set to the twangy thump of early Tom Petty. Now that promises quite a love child.”
—Ted Weesner, Jr., Boston Sunday Globe

“Peter Orner's inventive coming-of-age story finds the drama pulsing through the most seemingly conventional lives.”
—David L. Ulin, O, The Oprah Magazine

“Both challenging and worthwhile. Instead of a sustained narrative, hundreds of snapshots from Alexander's past are pieced together—though 'snapshots' suggests something static, and each of these eye-blink vignettes is animated by yearning …. They soon coalesce into an emotionally inflected mosaic of Alexander's past.”
—Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

“The novel is … remarkable for the specificity of its characters and the settings they frequent …. But the more universal story of the Poppers' thwarted dreams and loves will likely resonate with those who have never set foot in Chicago or its northern suburbs.”
—Adam Langer, Chicago Tribune

“This book evades quick reading, and rewards the kind of close attention paid to poetry …. The pleasure is in the language and the characterization, both of which are sharp and particular. It is clear that Orner knows these people deeply.”
—Malena Watrous, San Francisco Chronicle

“Peter Orner has written a magnificent book—magnificent in its unassuming details that nevertheless burst with meaning.”
—Lauren Eggert-Crowe, Los Angeles Review of Books

“From his first story collection, Esther Stories, on to his most recent novel, Love and Shame and Love, Peter Orner has established himself as one of the most distinctive American voices of his generation.”
—Ted Hodgkinson, Granta

Love and Shame and Love is an epic book—epic like Gilgamesh and epic like a guitar solo. When I finished it, my head was buzzing, my heart was pounding, and I was pumping my fist high in the air for Peter! Goddamn! Orner!”
—Daniel Handler, author of Adverbs

“Orner is unusually gifted at creating freighted moments of despair that generate far more impact than their size would suggest …. An anecdote about gym class—'The Hill'—plays with the cliches of middle school, but then sneaks up and devastates you.”
—Ron Charles, Washington Post

“In his magnificent second novel, Love and Shame and Love, Peter Orner proves he is one of the finest American poets of family weather …. The novel unfolds like an epic in miniature.”
—John Freeman, Toronto Star

“Vibrant and captivating, this novel about three generations of the Popper family of Chicago resonates with the truths about human nature.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“It's easy to luxuriate in Orner's language, which blends poetic rhythms and a foreboding tone …. The novel is remarkably earth-bound and emotionally complex.”
—Mark Athitakis, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Love and Shame and Love is a finely crafted family album, told in comic and heartbreaking snapshots . . . . This is a big, smart, generous, important novel.”
—Antonya Nelson, author of Bound

“Orner achieves a remarkable mix of psychological nuance, imaginative storytelling, and historical verisimilitude.”

“A masterful, multifaceted novel. Readers will find both love and shame in abundance in Orner's teeming fictional world.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Love and Shame and Love is a marvel. It left me with that feeling we all crave when we ead—the sense of wonder you wake with after a dream, realizing just how mysterious is this world.”
—Marisa Silver, author of The God of War

“I consider Peter Orner an essential American writer, one whose stories unfold with a flawless blend of ease and unpredictability.”
—Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination

“A beautifully written book about the ghosts of family hovering over us all, and the often tenuous perch the tribe has in a

Kirkus Reviews
A collection of literary tapas.Novelist and short story writer Orner (Creative Writing/San Francisco State Univ.; Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, 2013, etc.) combines short, reflective essays about literature with personal memories. The pieces (some previously published) are literary hybrids, and the book becomes a series of “unlearned meditations that stumbles into memoir.” The big names (Kafka, Chekhov, Melville, Cheever, Bellow, etc.) are well-represented, but so too are those outside of the canon—e.g., Lyonel Trouillot, Álvaro Mutis, Bohumil Hrabal and his “lightning strike of a novel,” Too Loud a Solitude. In the first piece, ostensibly about how Orner likes to read, reflect, look around, and just listen at San Francisco’s General Hospital’s cafeteria, the author transitions to Chekhov’s “tender and sorrowful” story “The Bishop,” which he admires for how the author (a doctor) lovingly employs details. He ends thinking about his dead grandmother. In a cabin in Bolinas, California, Orner thinks about his dead father and reads Breece D’J Pancake’s story “First Day of Winter,” which “gets [him] every time. The way a story about characters, nonexistent people, pushes us back to our own.” Orner confesses that John Edgar Wideman’s story “Welcome” is the “saddest story” he has ever read “by a wide margin.” Again, thinking about his father, he asks, what is the best Father’s Day novel? “Hands down The Brothers Karamazov.” But Bernard Malamud’s “My Son the Murderer” is the best story. While it takes Dostoevsky 700 pages “to get to the bottom of fathers and sons,” Malamud “can name that tune in under 8.” At 22, he accidentally fell out of a canoe but saved the book he was reading—the indelible and “generous” To the Lighthouse—and then anxiously waited for it to dry in the sun so he could finish it. Book lovers will devour these genuine, personal tales about literature and reading. Refreshing, finely turned gems of wit and wisdom from an author who has asked his family to bury him with a “decent library.”

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Read an Excerpt

Am I Alone Here?

Notes On Living to Read and Reading to Live

By Peter Orner, Eric Orner


Copyright © 2016 Peter Orner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-936787-26-5



Hadn't my own experience taught me that no word can say as much as silence?

— Yasunari Kawabata, "Silence"


I'm in the cafeteria of San Francisco General Hospital. I come here once in a while. It's a nice place to be distracted. I've been thinking about Chekhov, or trying to. I keep getting distracted. I have also come here today because I'm following up on a notion that in a hospital I'm closer to death than when I sit distracted in other places. I've seen no death today in this cafeteria. I've seen salads. Pudding. One of the doctors across the table from me is eating a bowl of strawberries while she tells another doctor about a third doctor's relationship with, it seems, a fourth doctor. Married, kids.

"She's so hard to talk to sometimes because her logic is so flawed. The crap she puts up with boggles the mind."

"Where's he based, this promiscuous pediatrician?"


"Apollo on his mountain. Should have guessed. Prick. Comes down and slums it at General."

Some patients down at the other end of the table keep high-fiving each other. I can't make out what they're celebrating. There — they did it again. High-five! There's also a man doing laps around the cafeteria, shouting into a cell phone. I've seen him here before. "I'm telling you," he shouts, "it's the military industrial prison complex. Eisenhower warned us of this in his final State of the Union. Ike, who would have thought he'd be the one ..."

Chekhov is sometimes called with, to my ear, a tinge of dismissal a "realistic" writer. As if Chekhov was merely the sort of writer, a realistic sort of writer, who merely records what he sees. He does it pretty well — if you like that sort of thing. Realism (or realisticism?) is what is, plain and simple. I wonder if this idea doesn't give short shrift to experience itself by suggesting that there is some kind of objective reality that is the same for everybody.

And I don't just mean the guy talking about President Eisenhower. Another lap. Here he comes again. No, wait. Now he's talking to Eisenhower. No, sir, they didn't heed you, sir. Not Lockheed Martin, not McDonnell Douglas, not Congress, nobody; they took your prophecy and stuffed it down the throats of we the people, plunked down another $3.5 million for a fighter jet — how many meatballs is that? Johnson said guns and butter, but he lied, while you, sir, you had the courage to call a spade a spade and nobody ever gave you a speck of credit because of course you helped create the mess in the first place, but at least you spelled it ... No, sir, please, no false modesty, it was you ...

His reality (though pretty lucid, seems to me) is clearly different, somewhere far away, and though I would love to hear the grandfatherly voice he's communing with on the other end of that long-dead cell phone, what I'm trying to say is that your way of experiencing the world is subtly and vastly different from mine or the strawberry-eating doctor's or the high-fivers', and that these alternate realities — the world seen through the muck of billions of different brains — encompass much of the wonder and freakishness of being alive.

Chekhov is as realistic a writer as Kafka, and vice versa. I read "The Metamorphosis" not as an allegory but as a rough morning. Gregor Samsa, you might want to call in sick today. Yet Chekhov, in his unobtrusive way, is often gloriously weirder. It's all in the things he notices about human beings, and there is nothing Chekhov does not notice. Few writers in history have been as gifted a noticer.

In 1890, Chekhov traveled to Siberia to examine and document conditions in the vast prison archipelago. It was a trip that biographers argue was terrible for his shaky health. The thirty-year-old Chekhov was already suffering from tuberculosis. Most likely nobody knew this better than Chekhov the doctor, but Chekhov the writer, Chekhov the citizen, was determined to observe firsthand the largest prison ever created. He'd go to Siberia if it killed him. The book-length investigation that resulted, Sakhalin Island, disappointed contemporary critics because it wasn't "Chekhovian" enough. But here, too, the man's eye is peerless.

Traveling with me on the anchor steamer to Sakhalin was a convict in leg irons who murdered his wife. His daughter, a motherless little girl, aged six, was with him. I watched him when he came down from the upper deck to the WC, the little girl and the soldier with his rifle waited outside the door. When the convict climbed back up again, the girl clambered up behind him, hanging on to his fetters.

Chekhov is on a stated mission. Still, what rivets his attention is this tiny drama — tiny, but monumental — a little girl waiting outside the bathroom door for her father, a man who killed her mother. Chekhov makes no judgment about this moment, and we never meet these two again, and yet here they are, for all time, a prisoner and his little daughter.

The range and depth of this allegedly realistic writer is so vast, and so unprecedented, that if you feel as though by reading a bit of Chekhov you get the idea, you are missing out on a universe. It's like reading the first few lines of Genesis and thinking, Yeah, yeah, Eve eats an apple and all hell breaks loose for mankind, I think I got it. I'm no maverick. Who doesn't love Chekhov? Woody Allen once said:

I'm crazy about Chekhov. I never knew anybody that wasn't! People may not like Tolstoy. There are some people I know that don't like Dostoevsky, don't like Proust or Kafka or Joyce or T. S. Eliot. But I've never met anybody that didn't adore Chekhov.

But isn't there something inherently suspect about being the writer everybody professes to admire? My theory is this: Easy to love from afar. Chekhov would be considerably less beloved if he wasn't so underread. You can't read "Lady with the Pet Dog" and call it a day. I'm thinking about the stories, the hundreds of lesser-known stories — not the five plays — and specifically of his incomparable late stories, when his work became considerably denser, often more sober, never without humor, yet wider in scope. It was as though, in his few remaining years, style itself became less and less important to him. These last stories seem, at first, almost to plod forward, until you realize — I'm not sure how to describe this exactly — that the pacing of the story has begun to match the cadence of your own breathing.

In 1902, the year Chekhov finished his second-to-last story, "The Bishop," He wrote to his wife, the actress Olga Knipper:

There's a frenzied wind blowing. I can't work. The weather has worn me out. I'm ready to lie down and bite my pillow.

He was forty-one. He had three years left.

As in many stories I can't live without, on the surface at least, not all that much happens. An important man — a bishop — reunites with his old mother, whom he hasn't seen in many years. Soon, as the reader knows from practically the first sentence, the bishop will die, and when he does, he passes without commotion in the course of an ordinary day. We'll all go the same way. You and me and the strawberry-eating doctor and the guy on the dead cell phone will die on a day when other people who haven't died will spend the morning answering a few e-mails before brushing the hair out of their eyes and thinking, Damn, it's already time for a haircut? I just had one the other —

So no, nothing earth-shattering occurs in "The Bishop," except that another human being leaves the scene of his life.

Dying, as opposed to death, you don't need me to tell you, is an isolating experience. It will separate us from those we love and those who love us. Nothing like a hospital visit to a dying parent to illustrate the demarcation line from those on the way out and those still here.

And when I think of my own death, I think of the people I'll leave behind, but I also mourn the impending loss of my routines. What struck me most today when I reread "The Bishop" was all the inconsequential things I won't do after I am gone. I won't wander the Mission District and rant stupidly, in my own head, about gentrification. The horrors never cease. The techies reap destruction. What? Roosevelt Tamale Parlor is gone? It's over. San Francisco is over. I won't sleepwalk into the kitchen for a Granny Smith in the middle of the night, and then eat it in bed, listening to the loudness of my own crunchings. I won't scratch the dog's pink belly and watch her go, erotically, apeshit. And this is the most tender and sorrowful aspect of "The Bishop." I would like to say terrifying also, but the bishop's dying days aren't scary, nor are they especially calm. They're plain normal. On Holy Thursday he officiates at church. He reads the gospels. He participates in the washing of the feet. He visits the widow of a general. He is driven in a carriage back home to the monastery. He drinks tea. He answers mail. He resolves a couple of petty disputes. He looks over some other documents. What documents they were! They came to him by the hundreds, thousands. He takes to his bed. He dies.

Next day was Easter Sunday. There were forty-two churches and six monasteries in the town; the sonorous, joyful clang of the bells hung over the town from morning till night unceasingly, setting the spring air aquiver; the birds were singing, the sun was shining brightly. The big market square was noisy, swings were going, barrel organs were playing, accordions were squeaking, drunken voices were shouting.

But let's back up a little and linger longer with the man while he's still with us. And let's not be so deferential, either. If there is tension in this story, it's the fact that everyone, including his old mother (whom he has not seen in eight years), kisses the bishop's ass. Nobody will just talk to him like a regular guy. He wants a mother, not another fawning congregant.

His mood suddenly changed. He looked at his mother and could not understand how she had come by that respectfulness, that timid expression on her face: what was it for?

The only people who treat him like an ordinary person are old Father Sisoi, a man the bishop appreciates but at the same time dismisses as tedious and nonsensical, and his young niece, Katya. It's Katya who finally levels with him about why his mother has shown up out of the blue like this after all this time. The family back home needs his support. She's come for cash.

"Your holiness," she said in a shrill voice, by now weeping bitterly, "Uncle, Mother and all of us are left very wretched ... Give us a little money ... do be kind ... Uncle darling ..."

The kid's candor deeply moves the bishop and he agrees to help. After Easter, he says, we'll talk about it, child. The present action of the story revolves around the last mortal days of the bishop. But what makes this story so vivid, so alive, so celebratory, aren't the things the bishop does but the things he remembers.

I'll give a single minor, yet remarkable example, and then I'm leaving. I've had enough of hospitals for today. While lying in bed, the bishop has begun to retreat to the safety of his childhood back home in the village. But not in a way that you might imagine. Chekhov knows how this actually works, that what we remember is often as much an invention as any story we make up out of whole cloth.

He remembered the priest of Lesopolye, Father Simeon — mild, gentle, kindly; he was a lean little man, while his son, a divinity student, was a huge fellow and talked in a roaring bass voice. The priest's son had flown into a rage with the cook and abused her. "Ah, you Jehud's ass!" and Father Simeon, overhearing it, said not a word, and was only ashamed because he could not remember where such an ass was mentioned in the Bible ...

Hold it, that's not so strange. On first glance, maybe not. Would you take another look, though? This is a dying man, remember, and he's recalling an old priest from back home in his village and his oafish pig of a son, a divinity student who once — eons ago now — yelled at the cook. This is not epic deathbed stuff. These are peripheral characters that the bishop encountered early in his long and consequential life. These are the people who steal his attention in his last hours? And how does the bishop know that the upshot of that incident was not that Father Simeon defended the cook from his son but the comedy of the priest kicking himself for not remembering where in the Bible Jehud's ass appeared? Maybe Father Simeon once told the bishop this? I doubt it. Besides, the story marches on. Father Simeon is never mentioned again. A forgotten priest's brief shame over a detail he doesn't remember from the Bible is simply a part of another man's parade of memories. Two sentences and Father Simeon is retired from literature forever. I've spent more time on him than Chekhov does. I pause at the moment because I believe the bishop invented the detail, beautifully, out of whole cloth. Like his creator, the bishop himself is a fiction writer to the end. Even his own final memories have more to do with other people than himself.

Imagine yourself in the hospital. Maybe it's this crowded, noisy, fascinating mayhem of a city hospital. You've got plastic oxygen tubes stuck in your nose. You're wearing a catheter. Your family, at least those members of it that are still speaking to you, have solemnly gathered. With the drugs they've got you on, you hardly have the strength to open your eyes. Imagine you reach back, way back, and think about someone you hardly knew, an old neighbor — say, Mr. Chevy Millard, who lived down the block, a man you haven't thought about since 1977. Now say you dive into this Mr. Millard's head and give voice to one of his passing thoughts. Something like: "The sad truth is, if I hadn't inherited so much money, I might have followed my dream of becoming of a pianist like my idol Oscar Peterson."

See what I mean? Isn't this a bizarre thing to think about when you yourself are leaving the scene for good? But this is what happens in this story about a dying man — written by a dying man.

Tolstoy, who (generally) adored Chekhov, once inferred that he might have been an even better writer if he had not been so dedicated a doctor. With all respect, Count, that's bullshit. Chekhov's being a doctor may well have been the key to how well he understood the connection between our ailing bodies and our ailing minds. To concern yourself with the hidden lives of others, including the long dead, especially at a time when you are trying to endure your own pain — is there a more generous act in life, in literature?

The night my grandmother died in a hospital in Chicago, she kept asking for someone named Jed. For hours it was: Jed, Jed, Jed. My mother finally figured out that Jed was a childhood neighbor in Taunton, Massachusetts, who died of hemophilia in 1918. It comes down to this. When we die, not only will our bodies be gone, but so will the people we remember. We live in the world, and we recall the world, and one day we won't do either anymore. The church bells will ring and the drunks will drink. A mother will bring her cow to pasture and tell the other women that she once had a son who was a bishop. She'll say this timidly, afraid that she may not be believed.

And indeed there were some who did not believe her.

As I've been taking these notes, the two gossiping doctors have been replaced by a couple of much quieter nurses. One is reading the San Francisco Examiner. A moment ago, she began to read to her friend from the obituaries. "Glenda Hildebidle was ninety-seven. It says her parents preceded her in death. You think!"

"There must have been no next of kin. They had to write something."

"Right, no husband, kids, et cetera."

"The obit writer figured Glenda must have had parents."

"Stands to reason."

"Does, doesn't it? And now look, they've made the paper."


Call this a Chicago story. It's true, though I've never understood why this matters so much. It seems a cheap way of looking at a story, to judge it by whether or not it actually happened. For me, all stories are fiction. The only question is: Does it rattle the soul or not?

We had a bachelor uncle, Uncle Harry, and my brother and I loved him. He wasn't really our uncle. He was my grandmother's first cousin. She always said she'd never had much use for the man herself, but, my grandmother said, we were the only family Harry had. He'd materialize sometimes, with much fanfare, on holidays.

I think of Uncle Harry bursting through the back door of my grandparents' house on Pine Point Drive (nobody ever used the back door of that house; nobody even knew where it was beneath all that ivy) in a wet trench coat, rain pouring down from the brim of his hat to the kitchen floor, shouting, "Hallo! Hallo! Anybody ashore?" My brother and I would sprint to the kitchen, and Uncle Harry would kneel down and offer up his nose. "Honk the schnozz, go ahead and honk it!" A monster of a nose, flabby and riddled with poppy seeds, and when we squeezed his nostrils together, he'd honk like a frantic goose. I've heard geese since who had nothing on Harry.


Excerpted from Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner, Eric Orner. Copyright © 2016 Peter Orner. Excerpted by permission of Catapult.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Peter Orner is the author of two collections of stories, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge and Esther Stories, and two novels, Love and Shame and Love and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. His stories have appeared in many periodicals, including the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, Granta, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review, as well as in The Best American Short Stories 2001. He has received the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Bard Fiction Prize, and was a finalist for both the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Orner has received Guggenheim and Lannan Foundation fellowships, and two Pushcart Prizes. He lives in Bolinas, California, and is a member of the Bolinas Volunteer Fire Department.

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