The Beauty of the City

My review of Ward Just‘s new novel, Rodin’s Debutante, is up at the Barnes & Noble Review. I’ve riffed plenty on Just before, and I was certainly happy to see him return to Chicago, where he grew up and where he set one of his best novels, 2004’s An Unfinished Season. Writing about the book let me touch on the love-hate relationship that so many Chicago writers have with the city, and one thing I tried to point out is that Rodin’s Debutante is remarkable for being more on the hate side of the ledger: “The strange yet admirable thing about Rodin’s Debutante, the seventeenth novel by Ward Just, is that its Chicago is the broken nose without the loveliness. Though its characters swan through the city’s elite social circles, it’s clear they’re only play-acting at sophistication.”

For the 50s-era Chicago Just writes about, the corruption is thoroughgoing, from South Side medical clinics to North Side art aficionados. A drifter who appears in a tony North Shore town early on is meant to stress that danger and anxiety are everywhere, even in the places where the well-off try to escape it. I wish I had more room to discuss how Just takes the things that Chicago writers commonly admire about the city—its hardworking people, its ambitious skyline—and turns them inside out, darkens them. A scene describing City Hall gets at some of that, satirizing the typical paeans to the city’s architecture:

Bert…crossed the county line into Chicago, home at last, the familiar streets, the racket, the city’s mighty industrial groad. Farther on, pausing at a stoplight, City Hall loomed large. The building was one of the least distinguished of the Loop, a coal bucket of a building, but appearances were deceiving because the coal bucket concealed the Hope Diamond—a political apparatus so costly, so exquisite, so multifaceted, so blinding in its flash of fire, that it had secured tenure for scores of Illinois political scientists over the years. And still they had not driven a stake into the heart of things. What they did not know about the politics of the city would fill Wrigley Field. Of course no one knew it all; in its dash and complexity it resembled the Dark Continent. God knows there were ghosts aplenty in Chicago but the city was beautifully reconciled, its books immaculate. You walked into City Hall and you knew exactly what had to be done, where the payments went and to whom and what was expected in return. That was the beauty of the city, its clarity—and balance.

The novel also reminded me that I ought to read Herman Melville‘s Omoo, which is referred to a handful of times in the novel: The headmaster of a second-tier boys’ school is greatly admired for his lecture on the book, much to the consternation of the lawyerly parents. (“The navigator was secretive and sly. Was this Melville a red?”) But even without reading it, Just’s reason for mentioning the book seems clear: “The entire Pacific Ocean was not sufficient to quench his thirst for experience and the knowledge that came with it. There was always something fresh beyond the horizon line and a vessel at sea was a world unto itself.” Sticking to Chicago and its piddling lake, you might as well be landlocked; if you want to be around grownups, make haste for the coasts.

3 thoughts on “The Beauty of the City

  1. Poor Melville. The excellent book The War On Words describes how he had to react to the burden of what-must-not-be-talked-about, as well as the burden of having the critics blind to his talent in later years. He is the Patron Saint of all writers who have to hear “But it’s so long!”

  2. “A lesser writer about Chicago would use it to set up an eventual moment praising the city’s grandeur despite it all. Just resists.” Algren would undoubtedly have appreciated Just’s restraint. Excellent review, Mark.

    1. Thanks, Pete. When I was writing this review, I was thinking a lot about “Chicago: City on the Make,” which I think is a good example of the love-hate push and pull a lot of Chicago writers go through when they discuss the city. Algren was never shy about calling out the city’s corruption, but there’s something a little romantic about the book too, as much in the language as in the descriptions. When he talks about the city being “like that of a fighter working beyond his strength and knowing it,” he’s looking for ways to give the city a little dignity, if through its rougher corners. A lot of Algren’s writing has that go-away-a-little-closer feel to it. “Rodin’s Debutante” feels like more of an abrupt kiss-off to the place.

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