Love and Shame and Love

  • Peter Orner
  • Little Brown and Co.
  • 434 pp.

Chicago is a fully realized character in this story of one Jewish family’s thwarted optimism over three generations.

Reviewed by Faye Moskowitz

If Chicago is your kind of town, then Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love is your kind of book. In his novel Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser says of Chicago, “It’s a world obsessed with ostentatious materialism and the cult of celebrity.” And Orner, following in the footsteps of other great limners of the “Windy City,” presents such a Chicago, as fully realized as the three generations of Poppers whose fictional lives he chronicles.

Orner has chosen to construct his novel as a collage of very short chapters interleaved with letters, references to poetry and philosophy, actual political figures, city streets and buildings, and cameo appearances by real people. Early in the novel, the Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin show up at the suburban night club of Mafia boss Sam Giancana. Among the crowd that night is Seymour Popper, a Jew, whom we know at this point only by his letters home from the U.S. Navy during World War II, letters filled at once with homesickness and optimism for the future. But now that optimism is undercut by his prescient thoughts about the Black convert to Judaism, Sammy Davis Jr.: “I’m with you, Sam. You’re one of us now. No matter how high you build yourself, they’ll always find a way to tear you down.”

The book opens in 1984 in the Kluczynski Federal Building where Alex Popper has been brought by his father, Philip, son of Seymour, for a rite of passage. “This is how it was for certain boys in Chicago, the sons of lawyers. In some families, Alexander Popper’s included, you didn’t get a bar mitzvah. To leave boyhood behind, you went to see Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz for a chat.” The judge catechizes Alex about the Biblical Moses. Alex, prepared beforehand by his anxious father, passes the judge’s test when he sums up Moses’ story: “Moses died alone. No family, no friends. Nobody even knows exactly where he’s buried. An angry God isn’t much of a friend, Your Honor, and everybody needs friends.” And the judge, satisfied, responds, “This, my son, is Chicago. Nobody goes it alone.”

But, plugged in or not, Orner’s characters seemed doomed to go it alone. With Alex as the ostensible protagonist, we witness the Poppers over four decades — Seymour and Bernice; their son, Philip, and his wife, Miriam, and son, Alex — as one by one their lives diminish with the rise and fall of their fortunes. This is not the barbaric yawp of Bellow’s Augie March, who stares down the Great Depression. In the world of post-war optimism, the Poppers find little to be happy about. Fathers consistently fail sons, and husbands and wives and lovers cannot breach their differences.

With the dying off of the old ward-heelers comes a sense of estrangement from both the seats of power and the physical land. Threaded through the narrative are scenes in the old Jewish cemetery where the death of the family patriarch, Seymour Popper, down on his luck, comes to mean the burial of any hope for the future. Only Hollis, the Poppers’ rootless African-American “houseboy,” buried outside the cemetery walls, has been able to be a father figure for grandson Alex and a confidant of Alex’s lonely mother.

Despite Oner’s often lyrical, sometimes comical, set pieces, his decision to jump from character to character and time frame to time frame is confusing. Even a careful reader will wander halfway through the book before distinctions can be made between the generations of Poppers. Ambitious as the author is to give voice to this dynasty of Chicago Jews, the best most of them can utter is not a barbaric yawp, but a long, sometimes exasperating kvetch.

And yet, Peter Oner with his magpie’s eye for observing Chicago, and his keen insights into human longing and despair, affirms the reasons we turn again and again to good fiction. Love and Shame and Love provides readers with a trusty GPS for their own blind wanderings through life’s labyrinths.

Faye Moskowitz is a professor of English at George Washington University whose most recent publication is the reissue by Feminist Press of And the Bridge Is Love (November, 2011). She is the author of four books and an edited volume.

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