Review: Open Heart Chicago: An Anthology of Chicago Writing, Edited by Vincent Francone

One of the many gifts of Vincent Francone’s new anthology of Chicago stories, Open Heart Chicago, is learning what it’s like to wander around Marquette Park while tripping on acid. The back alleys between “Kedzie and Troy, south of 73rd, north of 74th” turn into “Elysian fields” and orange and pink light (which might or might not be just air pollution) wallow around the park’s lagoon. This is something gorgeous, but terrifying. Is this the best moment of his life? The dazed narrator of Gint Aras’ story, “The Parabola of a Single Bullet Shot into the Night Sky,” asks this question as he looks for his grandmother, who “kind of looked like W.C. Fields” and “enjoyed a quart of Seagram’s every Sunday after Mass.” Even under mind-altering substances, it sounds like it would be hard to miss her.

Open Heart Chicago: An Anthology of Chicago Writing
Ed. Vincent Francone
Blue Heron Book Works

Francone, a writer and native Chicagoan, has collected a set of essays, rants, short fiction, elegies, and one memoirist list in this anthology. Almost every one of them is as memorable as Aras’ story, if not as hallucinogenic. Some of the pieces traverse Chicago (literally, in the case of Sandi Wisenberg’s disturbingly hilarious “CTA Journal”), but most are firmly planted in a particular neighborhood, place, and time. As Francone notes in his fine introduction to the book, “[l]ooking at the writers in this anthology, one will notice that the city doesn’t seem the same to each of them.” 

And he’s right. It would be a hazard to identify common ties or bonds between stories; their voices and experiences are too peculiar for that. Like the El cutting through scattered neighborhoods, certain thematic supporting beams do reappear though: families knit together by some balance of love and dysfunction, a distaste for anything that reeks of cant or bullshit or sentimentality (the great exception, always, being the Cubs), and an appreciation for whatever the urban opposite of ‘pastoral’ is–perhaps pavemental?

A few stories display all those characteristics, like Gary Slezak’s melancholy “The Christmas War,” a remembrance of a family-run Christmas tree lot on the South Side. “An observance of something partly concealed,” Slezak’s story explores the psychological pain caused by those things that haunt us–whether from the past or our choices for the future. Cajetan Sorich’s screed about her “stupid goddamn” job at a horribly upscale spa in the Gold Coast, and the perverse pleasure she takes at being bad at it, should be read every May Day in Chicago. “On the Way,” by Cyn Vargas, probably shouldn’t be read on Father’s Day, but it does explore well how the absence of a dad impacts a daughter’s daily life just as much as his presence would.

The mix, in both styles and focus, could potentially produce a discordant mess. But the sheer density of voices is like a welcoming clamor, as if you heard the El lumbering down its inevitable tracks. But I should be careful–that’s two references to the El in one review. A cheap Chicago image that I should avoid using for a book stacked with odd creativity. In my defense though, I will cite the great Stuart Dybek, whose very short story in the anthology “My Couplet,” describes how “the L will clatter by a silent hotel full of the strangers who can make the couples in stories seem even more themselves.” What a line–one perfectly suited for a book showcasing the glimmers of life that make Chicago what it is.

Open Heart Chicago is available at most bookstores and through the publisher’s website.

Carr Harkrader is a writer and book critic in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter at @CarrHarkrader.

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Carr Harkrader