Title 13, the debut novel of Michael A. Ferro, has all the trappings of an engaging conspiracy thriller. There are secret internal documents regarding the personal information of US citizens, gathered facetiously by the Chicago Regional Census Center, leaked or stolen. The culprit could be anyone, possibly Heald Brown, our protagonist, a mildly competent clerk with a penchant for booze and a hard case of the shakes. Or, an outside force. Who knows?
And Brown, with his slips into alcoholism, might have just tapped the wrong button on the keyboard, exposing classified information unwittingly.
Either way, Title 13 is a very Chicago centric book. It makes use of the topography of the city in a way that’s almost like Whack-a-Mole. For readers outside the city limits most of this will go over one’s head and simply be background and wallpaper. For those within city proper, it becomes a game of “hey, I know that place,” or, “hey, I’ve been there.”
There is a certain charm to having a book be ingrained in a setting. It makes it feel more real, much like when movies license actual brands rather than utilize their cheap imitations (i.e. Google becomes Loogle because the budget can’t support the real deal). Ferro relishes in these moments and takes ample time to establish a feeling of place and space that many Chicagoans can appreciate.
But it isn’t always perfect.
That’s that double edged sword of Title 13’s emphasis on place is that it is so engrained in being a book set in Chicago that some of the details become punchlines, such as:
“After the second and third drinks, Heald decided to go out for a jog down bustling Michigan Avenue, known as the Magnificent Mile.”
“A stink filled the air that Wednesday morning as Heald walked to the Brown Line L stop.”
“The striking new building now in focus next to the Sears Tower had been ornately adorned along the entire exterior with alternating black and white tiles.”
It feels like a rush through the greatest hits, as if someone is checking the boxes of what people know Chicago for.
I mainly bring this up because so much of this book feels semi-autobiographical. It isn’t something hidden from the reader since the main character of Heald is from Detroit and much of what’s marketed and celebrated by the author is that he is from Detroit.
Writing what one knows is fine. I do it all the time and I relate to the struggles and trials as a person that struggles with drinking. Heald is a fine analogue and Ferro does a solid job at portraying the mess and body horror and disarray any drunk encounters, but the writing has the airs of someone from Naperville saying they live in Chicago. I grew up in the suburbs and moved here for college but there’s just something about the greatest hits list that doesn’t sit well and pushes a potential reader away.
More pressingly, Ferro has a fine narrative voice that is active and pushes matters along. This voice doesn’t stop, though, and it makes for over baked dialogue that crashes the writing’s credulity much like the tourist’s focus on setting.
For example, when Heald has become the chief suspect of leaking or releasing or accidentally letting the pivotal documents out, he is interviewed by Ms. Elina Flohard, a superior:
“So you see, I have a problem here. You are my nadir. My harbinger of doom. For myself, this office, and everything else, you are the apogee of destruction. You are the spark between two atoms that triggers the mushroom cloud.”
It shouts to the back rows but doesn’t feel earned because so many other characters speak with this inflated sense of diction. Instead of a sine wave of peaks and valleys it ends up as a constant line where each voice is the same voice. As much as I shy away from using sport metaphors, trying to crank home runs each inning could be better served by the occasional bunt.
You can buy Title 13 at your local bookstore or online from Harvard Square Editions here for $22.95