The word epic is used rather flippantly these days, no? I hear it everywhere: film trailers, idle conversation, restaurant reviews. Of course, there’s epic the adjective—that was epic—and epic the noun—now Beowulf, there’s an epic. So when I spotted Daniel Handler’s front-cover blurb of Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love, I was a little squeamish.
“Love and Shame and Love is an epic book—epic like Gilgamesh and epic like a guitar solo.”
It’s a bit of a turnoff to see that right there: on the front cover. It’s a clever little language-trick pulled by Handler, but that is an expectation-escalator, if there ever was one.
I winced on sight. I have no idea how to define an epic—noun—in the modern sense. The Greek version, of course, is so much easier to pin down. We understand what is a Greek epic and what isn’t because, well, there are lists out there and academics who trouble themselves with those questions. We know because we are told.
But if I had to come up with a workable definition, I might posit that a modern epic would find a way to organically comment or touch on or involve every sphere of the American experience. That would be an epic, for me. And I use the qualifying adverb “organically” in my definition with a clear purpose: separating aspiration form ambition. A work that aspires to be anything but lacks the ambition to be that thing will ultimately fail. Maybe that’s why the word epic is so slippery: you can pick an epic out of a lineup, but you can’t sketch one out.
But Love and Shame and Love is the genuine article, a patchwork tome that feels neither taut nor forced, a novel about politics and law and traditions and progress and family and, of course, the title concepts: love and shame.
From World War II to the 1990s, Peter Orner tells the story of the Poppers, a Jewish family from Chicago, focusing on three generations, three relationships: Seymour and Bernice, Philip and Miriam, Alexander and Kat.
Alexander is our protagonist, and when we first meet him, he is visiting Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz “for a chat.” As it’s explained, this was “how it was” for sons of lawyers in Chicago. “To leave boyhood behind,” you sat with the “bosom buddy of the mayor” for a chat. These were the institutions for the Popper family: the city of Chicago, Judaism, and law.
Next thing we know, Alexander is a freshman at the University of Michigan. In “Portrait of the Artist as a Creative Writing Major in the Autumn of Mike Dukakis, or, First Love,” Alexander is—you guessed it!—an aspiring writer in—right again!—1988, having come upon—you’re on fire!—his first love, Kat. And, in an instant, Orner leaves the two in their undefined state in Ann Arbor: having sex often, Alexander grabbing like hell for something more stable to hold onto.
Instead, Orner focuses on Alexander’s lineage in gripping, brief episodes, as short as a few sentences and as long as five, maybe six pages. His language is similarly measured—but he hits all the right notes. His deployment of information about the Poppers allows him to be so economical with his language. He tracks where the Poppers lived, from houses in the city to the Jewish suburb of Highland Park. He notes where they went out to dinner and with whom they conversed; when Seymour and Bernice saw Sammy Davis Jr. and when Miriam hosted Walter Mondale.
Seymour, Alexander’s grandfather, is dispatched to the Pacific theatre late in WWII. He is present throughout Love and Shame and Love, his wartime letters to his wife Bernice interspersed throughout. For Seymour, the war is romantic: he is itching to be there, to see what others have seen, to be a man there. Simultaneously, he can’t wait to make his triumphant return home, to see his son Philip and his daughter Esther, to be in love with his wife, stories to tell, appreciated for his sacrifice, his time away. But when he returns, things are not—and are they ever?—as Seymour had imagined. The kids, too young to even recognize their father, put on, screaming and jumping into his arms. Things with Bernice deteriorate, their union now a seeming obligation more than anything else.
Between these vignettes, we see an adult Philip, having married the stunning Miriam, of Fall River, Massachusetts—now relocated to Chicago. But their relationship, too, shows strain, as does Alexander’s with Kat—the couple we’re reintroduced to many pages after the initial “Autumn of Dukakis.”
It’s worth stressing that this book is not merely about a legacy of eroded love in a Jewish family spread across the North Shore of Chicago. No, not at all. Orner deftly guides the reader through forty years of Chicago and American history, the story of the Poppers playing out during WWII, Korea, the rise of pseudo-intellectual libertarianism, Vietnam, Watergate, the election of Harold Washington, Reagan.
And yet, against this monumental backdrop—a half century of war and political scandal—against the Second City—which, as Orner reminds us, slipped to third with the 1980 census—against this religion—with its dual-identity of spirituality and ethnicity—and that profession—the family staple, it is these title concepts—love and shame—that make a lasting impact, that impart something about the world that’s more important than institutions.
Love and shame pitched against the American experience, in the American context, five decades’ worth.