Still No Word from You

Still No Word from You coverStill No Word from You: Notes in the Margin
Peter Orner
Catapult (October 11, 2022), 320 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $22.53

I’m always delighted to come across a book in which the writing shines. Peter Orner offers that in Still No Word from You. The title is taken from a letter of his grandfather’s written to his wife while he was overseas in World War II. She was apparently not very good at responding to his correspondence.

There are two kinds of essays in this book. In one Orner reflects on the writing of others and calls out passages he admires. The remaining essays, the majority of the book, are autobiographical.

There is no chronology here, but we learn Orner lived a complicated and multifaceted life in the period these essays cover. He had one brother. His mother left his father when he and his brother were still youngsters and she eventually remarried. Orner seems to have not gotten on well with his birth father, but his wife’s second husband welcomed him. He was married at least once in what seemed like a rocky relationship. (At one point he appears to be in the process of moving out of their home when his partner (wife?) announces, “Well, here’s something. I’m pregnant. What? Let me put it another way. Pregnant I’m. Something here’s— You don’t look— It takes a while. It’s not like making a sandwich.”) And his wife’s family did not like their future son-in-law much, or so Orner felt. He’s Jewish, which is central to many of the essays. We learn the author has lived in Illinois, Vermont, and Bolinas, and we know he taught college.

We get all of this in no particular order, even though the book is divided into six sections: Morning, Mid-morning, Noon, 3 P.M., Dusk, and Night. There is no forward momentum or flow in the book. What Orner offers is a series of vignettes. The essays are short, the longest being five or six pages.

One needs to appreciate Orner’s writing without assuming every word he writes is literally true. After all, he reports a conversation that happened when he was not in the room. And he recounts a person’s thoughts when he had no way of knowing those thoughts. But it is the writing for which we came. For example, of the author Gina Berriault he writes, “There’s a patience in Berriault’s sentences that could only be the result of a refusal to rush any one of them into existence.” So it is with Orner’s writing. He tells us, “The monkey would watch us, too, like a hawk.”

Orner’s skill with words is apparent when he writes about his future wife’s family:

quoteNaomi and I would eat tomatoes like apples, juice sweating down our faces. The fact that we still weren’t married wasn’t merely an offense against the honor of the family, it mocked God’s infinite mercy in broad daylight.

Naomi slept in her mother’s old room. I slept on a bunk in the storage closet. It wasn’t a storage closet, it was a fairly large room just off the kitchen that they used for storage, but everybody called it the storage closet. Put the fiancé in the storage closet.

Reading Still No Word from You delivers a delightful immersion in the craft of writing.

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