An Old Chicago Story

My review of Peter Orner‘s new novel, Love and Shame and Love, is in last Sunday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The surfaces of the novel are surprising—the chapters are brief and impressionistic, and I can’t recall the last contemporary “literary” novel I’ve read that included spot illustrations (it’d be nice if they made a comeback). But its themes are old-fashioned and familiar: It’s a Chicago novel, which means it’s largely about patronage, politics, and knowing your place. The novel opens in 1984 as the book’s hero, Alexander Popper, receives a lecture about how the city works from a federal judge:

Some call it patronage, I call it friendship. Nobody is his own man. Everybody needs somebody else…. This is how we build our buildings tallest of the tall. Our highways, fourteen lanes across. Sears, Roebuck, Marshall Field’s, Wiebolt’s [sic], Goldblatt’s, Montgomery Ward, Carson Pirie Scott, Hart Schaffner Marx, Polk Brothers! Back scratchers all. Do you think we could have reversed the flow of the Chicago River, this kind of engineering marvel, if not for the scratch, scratch, scratching of one another’s back?

There’s a lot of nostalgia going on here, not just for old retailers and old political operators, but for old Chicago writing too—I hear something Bellovian in that exclamatory, rhythmic speech, which recurs whenever a politician talks in the book. But the book isn’t an attempt to mimic Bellow, and much of the appeal of the book is Orner’s willingness to tinker with multiple tones. Popper, an aspiring writer for a time, mentions Algren and Carver, and Orner is trying to hybridize their styles into one that’s streetwise and straightforward.

When it works (as in a brief chapter about former mayor Jane Byrne), it works beautifully, though Orner can succumb to melodramatic flourishes when it comes to making broad statements about Chicago. (“They tore Comiskey down. In this city we tear everything down eventually.”) It’s a fine novel about Chicago, though it makes me wonder if the “Chicago novel” today is an artful snapshot of a place that no longer exists. Among the very good novels about the city in recent years—Ward Just‘s An Unfinished Season, Adam Langer‘s Crossing California and The Washington Story, and now Orner’s—none spend much time looking at the city past the 90s. Crime novelists do these days, I know, and Dan Sinker has tweeted an entertainingly profane novel-ish story about the current mayor’s rise to power. But if a novelist were attempting an ambitious novel about Chicago today, would it be obligated to circle around the same themes of political patronage and ethnic enclaves? Or is there a different story to be told about the city now?

6 thoughts on “An Old Chicago Story

  1. Just wondering, as a writer: if Saul Bellow had been a New Yorker, would his work have been different than that by Saul Bellow as a Chicagoan (ite?)?

    1. Bellow didn’t really write “city” novels as such—his novels largely take place in the heads of their protagonists. But you can do a bit of compare-and-contrast: Augie March is largely set in Chicago, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet is set in New York City. The former discusses Chicago largely in terms of political operators and the ethnic enclaves; the latter focuses more on the city’s intellectual life and social decline (this was the early 70s). Extrapolating from that, you can say that the stereotypical Chicago novel is fixated on the political machines and the firm lines separating races and classes, while the New York novel is fixated on money and the way people from different classes and backgrounds come together. (“The Bonfire of the Vanities” would be the classic in this regard.) “Conquering the big bad city” is more a NYC theme than a Chicago one, though exceptions abound (“Sister Carrie,” for one). I’ll have to keep thinking about this—thanks for prompting me!

  2. While a Daley was still in charge, I would have said that political patronage and ethnic segregation were timeless themes that hadn’t become and less pertinent since the time period of Orner’s novel. With Rahm Emanuel now on top, it remains to be seen whether either become things of the past.

  3. My company, Agate, published a wonderful Chicago novel called Looped, by Andrew Winston, in 2005. If you are interested in the possibilities of a 21st century Chicago novel, you should look at this one. Most novels about Chicago are really novels about particular neighborhoods conflated to represent the city, and ultimately the world. When written by writers who grew up here, especially–Farrell, Bellow, Petrakis, Epstein, Dybek, Cisneros, Langer–the primary impulse is to render that circumscribed, well-known world. Winston came to Chicago in his early 20s; rather than focusing on one beloved little section of the city, he interweaves the stories of six small groups of Chicagoans from across the city as those stories unfold over the course of one year. The book, while well received, did not get all the attention it merited. But it offers a very potent answer to the two questions with which you conclude your post.

    1. Thanks, Doug. I was in Chicago when “Looped” came out—it received a positive notice in the Reader while I was working there, I believe—but I never did check it out myself. Your parenthetical list of authors nicely summarizes the way that Chicago fiction is often bounded by class and ethnicity. I’m reminded of Mike Royko’s comment in Boss that “You could always tell, even with your eyes closed, which state [of the city] you were in by the odors of the food stores and the open kitchen window, the sound of the foreign or familiar language, and by whether a stranger hit you in the head with a rock.” I love that line, but does it still apply?

      1. Maybe in some parts of the city, but not in most. You asked, “is there a different story to be told about the city now?” I think the answer to your question is yes, and that answer is explained in Looped. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t more of those old stories still to be told, too. Chicago is large. It contains multitudes. At bottom, that’s one of the messages born by Looped.

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