By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
It may not be possible to ever really know anybody else’s story. And if you do, maybe you don’t know the full story, with complicated histories and sticky contexts. Which stories stay with us, which pass us by and how do we decide whose life is important? Anna Bruno’s new novel, ‘Ordinary Hazards,’ released this month (Atria Books) sifts through of all of those kinds of questions.
“The starting point for me was the bar, really. I was thinking about being in public places and there are all these people around you who have stories,” Bruno said of her first novel. “You never know what those stories are — they could be incredibly sad or incredibly happy — all those kinds of stories that people have that you just don’t know about as someone else in the bar or cafe. I wanted to put the reader in that position, to be in the bar with this woman.”
The book will make readers (like me) nostalgic for pre-coronavirus times, when you could lose a night perched at an unpretentious bar like The Final Final, an aptly named last stop in an unnamed college town in upstate New York. From the old tin ceiling to the acrylic flooring, it is the kind of place you’ve been in if you’ve ever lived in a small town and sought solace in a not hip place.
In addition to the college kids who pass through for a quick shot on their way to someplace better and more exciting, Bruno populates the bar with regulars who have earned ease with one another, even though some have sharp elbows, and a bartender who pours a perfect drink and arbitrates disputes with a look.
“I hate that stereotype of the small town losers in the bar. I hope people see these characters. Yes, they spend a lot of time in a bar, but they also have their own kinds of success and rich lives, so I wanted to build that in,” she explained.
Anna Bruno grew up in Upper St. Clair, where one would never find a broken-in joint such as this, but the Final Final is an aggregate of places in Ithaca, where she got her MBA, and in Iowa City, where she now teaches at Iowa State University.
The story stretches along the arc of a single night, with Emma as our window into this world. Tremendously successful in business and finance, Emma drinks too much, obsesses about her dog, and struggles with loss and the elusive nature of happiness. She both interacts with the folks at the bar and ruminates about all of the events that brought her to this barstool, nursing one Maker’s Mark after another, contemplating her career choices, her upbringing and her relationship with her Ex-, Lucas.
Bruno’s own business background was essential to writing a character who thrives in the business world. Emma runs a hedge fund. She teaches business at the local college. She has written the (fictional) book, “The Breakout Effect,” a sort of business book that is more Michael Lewis than Tony Robbins, which sells like hotcakes among the corporate strivers and investment aspirants. Emma is off on book tour more often than not.
“This was an interesting opportunity for me to tie in the MBA business background,” Bruno said. Emma’s book is about the power of stories and how those stories can skyrocket someone to the pinnacle of the business world. “She’s trying to understand success through stories — when you look at successful business people or politicians, a lot of it is the stories that they tell, maybe, more than the actual facts of what they did.”
Emma and her ex, Lucas, are literary thinkers, too. Lucas, in particular, though he works in the family drywall business, has an expansive world of the mind. His way of leaving this small town is through his intellect and reading. One of the books that Emma and Lucas discuss is the novella, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich,’ Leo Tolstoy’s meditation on death, the consequences of life without meaning and purpose, and what it means to truly live.
In Bruno’s hands, the Tolstoy callbacks help the reader understand how these people ended up here, with Emma at the bar and Lucas noticeably not. “Emma’s at this point of reckoning, where she has to consider what success is. The book is looking at other kinds of success. There are different kinds of financial success, but also as a human being, living a fruitful life,” Bruno explained.
For those outside of small towns, there can be a notion or narrative of what small town life is like — limited and narrow and not fully realized. These are easy to reach for stereotypes which ‘Ordinary Hazards’ pushes back on in order to get beyond facile notions and put the reader in this small bar in this small town.
“Everyone has stories, we just largely don’t know them. Sometimes, in finding out those stories, or in telling them, we become different, people become different to us, we start to understand them,” according to Bruno.
Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures is hosting a virtual event, Anna Bruno in conversation with Sarah Elaine Smith, on August 27th.