About the reviewer: Susannah Pratt is a Chicago-based consultant by day, reader/writer by night, who is currently preparing for the forthcoming winter by stocking up on books. You can find more of Susannah’s writing here and here.
Four years ago, in response to a writing prompt, I created a list of 100 images from my neighborhood. Taken in aggregate, the list was noisy, colorful, and stinky because at the time I made it I lived in Rogers Park, the most diverse neighborhood on Chicago’s northside. One portion of it reads, “horns from an Assyrian wedding, Dan Sullivan’s barber shop mustache, possums, cabs hidden in the basement lots of apartment buildings, Monarcha ice cream carts, crumbling Victorians, narrow streets, asian lady on bicycle with green parakeet, hand lettered sign ‘Going Out For Business’…” And so forth – wildlife, blue-collar grit, immigrant imagery…it was all there in my 100.
Brian Doyle’s latest novel, Chicago, reads like a more lyrical version of my list, one supported by the gentle arc of a plot line running just underneath. But a plot-driven novel this is not. It’s character all the way, and the chief character – the magnificent city itself, full of brute beauty and teeming with life. We experience Chicago through the eyes of our narrator, a young man in his first post-college job, nestled into a spare apartment on the city’s northside in the early 1980s. His blank-slate perspective and naive inclination towards curiosity and kindness render for us a Chicago full of genuine, thoughtful people – gang lords, landlords and baseball fans alike.
Our narrator’s life is only one of the story lines making up the novel. More interesting are those of his fellow building occupants, striving to find luck in money, art and love. But again, the reader does not follow out this book to find out what happens. Rather, one is carried along on the tide of Chicago by long passages describing alleys and sky scrapers, blues bars and gay bars, epic snow fall and sweltering heat. And the lake. The tremendous lake that “held the city in its immense cold gray hands.”
To the extent that Chicago is a three hundred-page love letter to the city, then, it is fair to ask whether the book is a worthwhile read for those without firsthand knowledge of it. I am the wrong person to ask, as I have spent the majority of my life within walking distance of this vast lake, and dwelling within the city on its shores. And for those of us who inhabit and love this city, it is a dark time. Chicago and its record-setting violence have created a deserved dominant cultural narrative of the city as segregated at best, life threatening at worst. In this context, Doyle’s book is a balm. While not shying away from Chicago’s ruthless side, the book is also a reminder of the real people and food and stories and music and resilience that continue to exist here. Those of us living here know these things; what a relief to read it coming from somewhere outside. (Doyle currently resides in Portland, Oregon.)
Chicago moves beyond, however, to touch on themes more universal, and in so doing gives the book its power. The narrator’s openness and particular stage of life make it possible for him to imprint on Chicago, for it to become archetypal to him. “Always,” he tells us, “no matter how many years passed, I could hear and see and touch something inside me that only Chicago has and is.” He loves Chicago because of what it is to him in the lonely, thrilling, and undefined moment that is early adulthood. Doyle underscores this dynamic by adding a bit of magical realism to the novel; a choice that would seem out of place with the gritty concrete city at its core, but works for any of us who look back at our twenties, wherever they took place, with the sense that it was a fleeting, almost unreal, and wholly important time. Those of us who were lucky enough to be in Chicago at this stage of our lives – myself and Doyle included – are forever indebted to the place.
Chicago by Brian Doyle is available for purchase at local bookstores and online for various prices around $20.