Save Us From Ourselves: Orders of Protection by Jenn Hollmeyer

Katie Sticca
| Reviews


If the act of editing fiction is often an intimate experience, so too is the act of reading it, so often inextricably linked in the mind to the place and time where the words were first encountered. It’s not hard to remember the sensation of opening Orders of Protection to “Ozone”—a stirring three-part story told in the male voices of three different generations—for the first time a couple of months ago on a crowded public train. The first section of the story belongs to Joe, an elderly husband suffering from advanced emphysema and reflecting on the many mistakes he’s made in his life in the midst of a heat wave-induced power outage. Back then, reading his account of the miserable heat and discomfort caused me to shift in my seat, feeling claustrophobic as I took in the constraints of his illness: “I felt a pull in my chest and adjusted the tube in my noise. I propped myself up on pillows, but the heat kept rising like stuffing in my lungs.”
Reading the story again, months later, was an entirely different experience in helplessness, with the world halted by a pandemic and hundreds of patients struggling to breathe in hospitals a mile down the street from my apartment. In “Ozone,” Joe’s television advises to “Stay inside. Check on your elderly neighbors,” but “everyone on this block was elderly, so no one checked on anyone.” As the power outage threatens his electric oxygen machine, Joe tries to calm himself: “I would be okay if I stayed still and calm. The power wouldn’t be out for too long. The tank would buy me five hours. That would be enough. It had to be.” With his agoraphobic wife sleeping beside him, and as “the breathing out felt like sparklers on the Fourth of July,” Joe realizes that “the air was going to leave for good, taking me with it.” His last act is to try to call his son, though the line is dead, and then to let his wife continue sleeping. It’s a bravely told story, heavy with compassion and regret, and Hollmeyer uses restraint and tenderness to heartbreaking effect.
“Ozone” goes on to expand the focus in the second two parts of the story to Joe’s estranged son and his neglected teenaged neighbor, filling out the story of the family and of the many tragedies, small and large, that occupy the hearts of the three men. These men see themselves as protectors—of their families, their mothers, their pets—and indeed they are, but Hollmeyer so subtly shows the ways in which the men need to be protected, as well. As with so many of the complex characters in Orders of Protection, the greatest danger they face is the danger they pose to themselves.

Katie Sticca is the managing editor of Salamander. She received her MFA from Emerson College, and lives in Boston.

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