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In Peter Orner’s three Paris Review stories—“Story of a Teacher’s Wife,” “The Vac-Haul,” and “Foley’s Pond”—three outrageously morbid things happen: a boy’s younger sister drowns in a pond of toxic sludge; a man is murdered with a bike spoke (“His stomach was so ripped apart the police had to collect him up in a bucket”); and a woman walks into a classroom and starts shooting and taking hostages. They’re bite-size stories, under fifteen-hundred words, and the violence rushes in like a flash flood, though it doesn’t cleanse anything. Rather, it leaves you with an aftertaste like when you eat yogurt off an unpolished silver spoon. I devoured them.
I think what propelled me through these three upsetting stories is that the violence doesn’t actually happen to the people in the stories’ centers. “Foley’s Pond,” for instance, is narrated by a classmate of Nate Zamost, the boy who’s two-year-old sister is fished out of the pond; in “Story of a Teacher’s Wife,” the narrator hears about the man who was killed by a bike spoke from a friend at a boarding school in South Africa. The remove is greatest in “The Vac-Haul”: the narrator only hears about the shooter on the radio, while he bides time with his job for the sewer company.
Orner writes with a concise acidity, but that’s really more an affect of his narrators than it is any needling about Orner’s prose, which flows smoothly through these tragedies. The narrator of “Foley’s Pond,” for example, has an almost inconceivably acrimonious response to the death of Nate’s sister, called Babs:
Remembering it all now, what comes to me most vividly is my private anger toward Nate. Foley’s pond had always been a secret place and now everybody in town knew about it. It was wedged inside a small patch of woods, between where Bob-O-Link Avenue ended and the public golf course began … A fantastic place, Foley’s, scragged, infested, overgrown, and gloomed long before Nate Zamost’s sister wrecked it.
Caitlin Love in an associate editor of The Paris Review.