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The Lonely Voice: "The Overcoat" by Gina Berriault

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“The Lonely Voice” features acclaimed author Peter Orner discussing short stories you might not have heard about but that we believe help us understand that even in our “intense awareness of human loneliness” — as Frank O'Connor called it — we are connected.

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In his memoir in essays, "Am I Alone Here," Peter Orner includes an essay about Frank O’Connor that reinforces many of my own thoughts on the short story. The title of this short series is taken from O’Connor’s book "A Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story." It is a work Orner believes to be one of the few out there about the short story that mostly gets it right.

I remember encountering that essay a few years ago and experiencing a pang of a resonance that was so strong it made me swoon a little — the way perhaps we all feel when a writer seems to have read our minds or echoed something we have thought only in the quiet of our own souls.

TRACI GRIFFIN Little, Brown, and Company Peter Lonely Voice.jpg .jpg
TRACI GRIFFIN

The feeling was doubly palpable when I read Orner’s essay about Gina Berriault.

I first discovered the work of Gina Berriault in 1990 — her book "The Infinite Passion of Expectation." I never met another soul who knew who she was or appreciated her stories as much as Peter Orner seemed to.

I was also aware that he wrote the introduction of the 2017 edition of Berriault's collection "Women in Their Beds." In that essay, Orner discusses Berriault’s story “The Overcoat.” Yes, that’s the title. Most readers know Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” and this is Berriault's homage to him. And what a tribute it is.

“This is Berriault. Even when it’s too late, even when it’s long past too late, characters grip their humanity, like Gogol’s clerk, with a vigor even they don’t know they have,” Orner writes about Gina Berriault’s “The Overcoat.”

When I interviewed Peter Orner about his latest story collection, "Maggie Brown & Others," he described the influence that Gina Berriault has had on his work. We soon discovered that we share a passion for other writers that are unsung and un-anthologized. We rather enjoy keeping the stories to ourselves in some ways. The books and stories are like the gold coins the miser counts out and then secrets away again, thinks about in stolen moments because they make bearable a world that may not treasure stories — really, really good stories.

But we also feel that there might be no better time to spill the secrets — these small, quiet masterpieces — that show us that even when we are at our most intensely lonely, we are one voice in a grand euphonious chorus.

This is episode 1 of "The Lonely Voice" on Book Public: “The Overcoat” by Gina Berriault.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.