Review: ‘Oranges,’ by Gary Eldon Peter
There’s a Minnesota niceness to the stories in this debut collection by Twin Cities writer Gary Eldon Peter, who teaches at the University of Minnesota. This can push them occasionally into cloying, lessons-learned territory better suited to YA fiction. The tone throughout is sincere, gentle, intimate, heartfelt. But don’t worry: Peter is unafraid to show some teeth, find fault, insist on fair treatment, be direct.
Peter writes revealingly about things we all experience. The haunting aura left by a former lover. Sparks of humor even in tending to grim details of a dying parent. The incompleteness, the compromises, of our closest relationships.
Linking the collection is Michael, 40-something, gay, a lawyer who has lost a longtime lover to AIDS. Michael has a boyfriend, Stephen, and is helping care for his dying mother and aging father.
If it’s possible that a small devastation is not an oxymoron, that is what happens in the closely observed “Wedding,” one of the book’s strongest stories. Michael’s two older sisters are less than welcoming in response to news that he’ll bring Stephen to a nephew’s wedding.
Their genteel, “everything is fine” hostility infects Michael, who critiques his boyfriend’s outfit and responds weakly to a sister’s unpleasantness at the reception. The story works wonderfully because it shows Michael perhaps wanting more from his sisters than he could reasonably expect, given his past interactions with them about his gayness. And he is not above jabbing at them in a deliberately hurtful way. He and Stephen never dance together at the reception, but they blow off steam by doing so later in their motel room.
In the bittersweet title story, Michael’s plain-spoken mom, who is in chemotherapy for cancer, loves the oranges that he brings when he drives down to Iowa from Minneapolis to visit her. The violent outside world leaks in via an aside: “We’re sitting in the living room, watching the Gulf War on CNN with the sound turned down.” Michael’s mother tells a never-told story from her youth that involves petty thievery and an elderly neighbor woman dying in front of her. The ending, involving a turban that she was at first too proud to wear, feels touching and just-right.
In other stories, two boys spy on a possibly gay neighbor, and Michael is diagnosed with an STD that he didn’t get from his boyfriend. “Chest and Shoulders” has him hiring a personal trainer. In “Sun Country,” he visits his widowed father at a chilly retirement colony in Florida. What gay child can’t relate when it becomes clear that talking with your dad about golf, travel schedules and car cleaning proves much easier than tackling a discussion of a son’s gayness?
Convincing and humane, these stories introduce a welcome voice that expertly exposes foibles and gently reveals how we hurt and help and love one another.
Claude Peck is a former editor at Star Tribune.