Book Review:‘Oranges’ by Gary Eldon Peter
A debut collection of linked short stories about love, loss, and intimacy, Oranges is a gentle look at what it means to come of age and grow older as a gay man in the Midwest. The slim collection of nine tales sketches the life of Michael Dolin, a civil lawyer who grew up closeted in Mason City, Iowa, before finding self-respect in Minneapolis as an adult. In spare prose, author Gary Eldon Peter portrays Michael’s lifelong journey toward inner peace with care and compassion.
The first story, “Blankets,” opens the collection with the protagonist at his most vulnerable. A recent college graduate, Michael struggles to balance his attempts to study for the LSAT with the demands of his job at a local hospital, where he cares for acutely depressed patients and dreams of finding stability. The aspiring lawyer also has just moved into the home of his partner, Kevin, who is living with HIV in the eighties. How the couple’s relationship will grow is by no means certain, but the intimate moments the two men share at their kitchen table are among the most memorable in the story, which, as with the other tales, unfolds in a series of succinct vignettes.
The rest of the collection focuses on either Michael’s adolescence or his mid life. In “The Bachelor” and “Donny,” Peter fully renders the confusion and turmoil that accompany Michael’s teenage realization that he’s gay. By contrast, in “Skating,” “Oranges,” and “Sun Country,” the author sympathizes with an adult Michael’s efforts to help care for Kevin, his mother, and his father, all of whom are ailing and nearing their deaths. Across stories Peter switches from first to third person and moves around in time, but his primary concern always is to flesh out Michael’s interiority.
“Wedding,” the final story, ends the collection on an uplifting note. The story explores Michael’s relationship with his new partner Stephen as the couple prepares for and attends the wedding of his nephew Jason. For much of the story, Michael frets over the idea that his sister Susan, Jason’s mother, will react negatively to his male partner’s appearance at her son’s wedding, but his worrying amounts to very little. Knowing how lonely Michael has been since Kevin’s death, Susan deals with the unfamiliar experience as best as she can, even if she doesn’t quite welcome Stephen into the family with open arms. The two men end the night dancing in their hotel room, optimistic about the future.
Warmhearted and thoughtful, Peter is at his best when he’s attending to the nuances of Michael’s close relationships. Whether charting Michael’s clumsy interactions with his father at a retirement home or detailing the sundry ways he tries to brighten Kevin’s last days, the author manages to make each relationship feel fresh and distinct from the rest. The best stories in the collection are those that show Michael successfully closing the distance between him and a loved one, after a period of emotional or physical separation.
As sweet as the stories are, they sometimes enter the realm of the saccharine. Conflict rarely erupts across these tales, often appearing only as a distant threat. The stories also tend to be a bit too well plotted, and the endings are uniformly forward looking and hopeful, even in the face of great loss. Time and time again, Michael finds himself in the difficult position of having to comfort his loved ones as they approach death, but the author rarely dwells in his protagonist’s pain or frustration. A little more anger would have heightened the realism of these slice-of-life stories
In spite of some blemishes, Oranges is still promising as a debut collection. Peter is talented at honing in on small moments that reveal character, and he sensitively captures the quietude of life in the Midwest. It’s not difficult to see why the collection won the Many Voices Project competition in Prose, hosted by Minnesota-based New Rivers Press. From his straightforward language to his penchant for precious endings, the author brushes aside cleverness and cynicism at every turn, and his stories earnestly depict an endless longing for human connection against the backdrop of a placid landscape.