By Jasmon Drain
Penguin Random House
There are many reasons to read Stateway’s Garden, Jasmon Drain’s debut story collection, but perhaps the most unexpected is the case it makes for the color brown. “The water in Lake Michigan is brown no matter what time of day or what season. However, if you tilt your head to the side while holding a beer in your left hand and the metal gate in the other, the color brown can be the most beautiful of them all…It’s hard and focused, and when you see the water bashing the shore as though in a fight, you may start to believe brown is the best color for everything anyway.”
With undertones that are equal parts sly and straightforward, descriptive and allusive, such unexpected insights mark Stateway’s Garden. The interconnected stories follow the lives of residents of the Stateway Gardens public housing complex throughout the 1980s and early 90s. Right off the Dan Ryan around 37th Street on the South Side, the community was built in the 1950s and demolished in 2007 (there are videos of it on YouTube). Although originally intended for vague purposes of integration, the buildings, like much of public housing on the South Side of Chicago, quickly became deeply segregated islands to themselves; just as engineered to contain poor African Americans as the concrete barriers are for Lake Michigan’s rusty water.
It was also within fireworks-watching distance of the then Comiskey Park. Tracy, an observant and intelligent boy (and then teenager, and then man, as the stories progress), watches the fireworks shot off after a White Sox win from the balcony outside the Stateway apartment he shares with his brother and mother. “Share” might be a generous description; his older Jacob wants out from the time he realizes he’s in and the brothers’ mom, Joanne, is sometimes there and sometimes not but always checked out. Tracy makes do on his own. In another Stateway building, sisters Solane and Stephanie live together, along with Solane’s children. Stephanie’s attempt to avoid the fate of her sister as a teenage mother and to make her way out of Stateway propel the latter stories in the collection.
Drain wastes no words. He writes like the air is icy, the wind is screaming, and it’s time to say what you’ve got to say. The sparse approach crafts shrewd lines that wring much out of a little: a man has “teeth capped with so much silver that we could have made five forks and spoons;” a pleading man sounds “like a cheap book read too fast;” when a pissed-off mother “said money it could bruise your arm.” A few stories in, the constriction starts to foster feelings that resemble the atmosphere of the buildings themselves. There’s a section, late in the book, when Stephanie is walking amongst the skyscrapers of the Loop. “She attempted to keep her head lifted, but the shadows of the buildings outweighed her, kept her nearly bowed, reminding her of the enduring structures she was anxious to leave on the South Side.”
The title of the book is appropriate. An insertion of an apostrophe opens up hidden grounds. A friend of Tracy’s notes about the moldering grass at Stateway, “nothing as dark as this can be healthy. And nothing healthy can grow here.” The irony of a community not built to last is one that Drain traces through the natural world. There is no seasonality though; abandoned “needles harboring every letter after the word hepatitis” mark the staircases, not fallen auburn leaves. It is as if the buildings can suppress and stunt any growing life force, any attempt at a flourishing life. Tracy reflects at one point about his first memory of Stateway, “how close together the big buildings were. All of them painted the same light brown color. And how they blocked out the sun.” Even the sun is segregated there.
Thus, Drain’s chronicle of the residents of Stateway is a statement of survival. In her examination of Chicago’s literary and artistic history, Chicago Renaissance, the scholar (and Newberry Library president) Liesl Olson quotes early 20th century critic Floyd Dell in saying that the best novels about Chicago render it as “a pervasive influence–a condition and not a place.” However, Drain insists, the place is the condition. Those conditions, as we see with our supposedly sightless coronavirus pandemic, still prosper. The towers of Stateway Gardens are gone. But, in this necessary story collection, the place remains.
Stateway’s Garden is available at most bookstores and the Penguin Random House site.
Carr Harkrader is a writer and educator living in Chicago. He works for a nonprofit where he writes and designs online educational resources and content. Originally from North Carolina, he is often the slowest talker amongst any group of Northerners. He enjoys both crappy reality tv and literary fiction, while often not really grasping the meaning of either.