Review: Chi Boy: Native Sons and Chicago Reckonings, by Keenan Norris

Chi Boy: Native Sons and Chicago Reckonings by Keenan Norris may be the perfect book for the Halloween season. And not because its stories of racial discrimination and poverty are frightening—though they are, they definitely are—but because after reading a book bedazzled with so many linguistic flourishes and complex sentences, so many themes and topics, one walks away with the nauseous sensation of having devoured too many sweets.

The book is part literary criticism about the author Richard Wright, part exploration into the Great Migration, part biography of Norris’s father, part Barack Obama biography, part investigation into Chicago’s gang wars, part critique of America’s empire project, and part condemnation of America’s race relations. If that sounds like a lot to squeeze into 196 pages, that’s because it is.

On page 56, after surveying many of the ideas mentioned above, Norris writes about the book’s purpose, “I see my project as one where I map a narrative lineage from Wright to my father to me, from popular conceptions of the Great Migration to the ways that Chicago is conceived of in the popular sphere today, from the undersongs of the Migration to the unreported America that we share but often do not register on a daily basis.”

But why is he saying this now? After so many pages delving into these loosely connected thoughts without any through-line, why attach the through-line so late?

It’s strange to see an author “resolve” a book’s early issues without going back to fix them properly. Instead of clarifying his Big Idea when he wrote its component parts in pages 1 through 55, Norris added this late portion, I believe, to mollify the reader’s suspicions that he started the book without any vision at all. It feels a bit like kids arguing over a game on the playground: “I’m not out. I had an invisible shield the whole time.” In Norris’s case, “I’m not a fraud. I knew what I was doing from the beginning.”

It’s not clear what greater picture we can glean from Norris’s brief explorations into each topic. The book reads like a final college paper where students must combine previous assignments into a long essay, compelling most to simply copy-paste large chunks of text into one document. Perhaps the book would be more successful if it were a collection of unrelated essays and not . . . whatever it is.

Author Keenan Norris

Because there are so many ideas with so little connective tissue, Chi Boy feels less like a sincere exploration into heady topics and more an opportunity for Norris to bloviate about whatever comes to mind. After reading the book, I was certain of one thing: Keenan Norris thinks he’s pretty smart, and he wants you to agree.

Take a look at this bit: “But the lauding of the violence of the black soldier is a political strategy in the long saga of our national power wherein the oppressed take up arms on behalf of their oppressors and thus substitute their aggrieved and globally sympathetic image for the image of American dominion, the gray mushroom blooming above Nagasaki, the pretzeled bodies infected with Agent Orange, the green flashes in the dark over Baghdad, now so feared throughout the world.”

There’s nothing wrong with his ideas, but there is plenty wrong with their presentation. To a reader, meandering sentences like these seem like the worst exercise in pretension. One can imagine Norris typing manically on his computer. “Yes,” he’s saying to himself, “very good. I like how it’s a long sentence. People will be impressed by its bigness.” As far as I can tell, Norris writes these long-winded diatribes not because they further his ideas (they simply do not), but because they link his writing to a literary tradition that may elevate the work.

Readers of American literature know our long history of stretching sentences to the Earth’s end. Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy, two of our best, may also be our worst offenders. But there is a distinct difference between highfalutin high literature and Chi Boy’s prose. When one reads long, complicated sentences written by masters like McCarthy, the great joy is that, upon closer examination, one realizes that the work is layered or peculiar enough to invite that much thought. That’s the key word, by the way: thought.

All writers and readers should remember the adage, “One’s writing should only be as complicated as their ideas.” When a writer does not follow that rule, their long sentences seem needlessly long, and their wide vocabulary seems needlessly wide. I’m not against complicated writing—the contrary, really. But I take issue with writing that tries to disguise a deficit of purpose with a surplus of words. Of that crime Norris is guilty. And it feels a little manipulative.

While this book fails, Norris absolutely has talent, and I may consider reading his other books. Some of his passages are remarkable. For instance, he describes Chicago’s weather beautifully, “And the summers brought out the swamp, full of reeking, drenched bodies; Chicago in August could make you not want your body, let alone anyone else’s.” He examines racial inequalities with enlightening and powerful metaphors, “We possess no remembered cushion of culture upon which we can lay our tired heads and dream of our superiority.”

The problem is that for every beautiful passage there are four or five that reach for the same heights but barely get off the ground. What do we make of the silliness of, “Everything spoken is a choice that silences other things that might be said and are not.” It’s eye-rolling and muddled. The second-hand embarrassment is palpable.

Norris hits his stride when he drops his family stories and focuses on literary criticism. Readers can immediately recognize Norris’s love and respect for black writers of the earlier 20th century. The best section is when Norris discusses criticisms leveled against Wright. Writing about Wright’s depiction of violence against women, “Anchored in real life to a family that he refused (unlike his father) to abandon, Wright took out his frustrations by fictionally killing the black girl, a character who in the novel represents very little but who in Wright’s life is freighted with significance.”

Here we see Norris at his full power. He is an expert on an important but often misunderstood part of literature. He uses his expertise to create fully formed, intelligent, articulate opinions about the topic. Some of the criticisms are overwritten, sure, but the weight of his ideas makes the language a little more earnest. It’s not perfect, but it is better.

Chi Boy: Native Sons and Chicago Reckonings is available at most bookstores and through the Ohio State University Press website.

Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene and sometimes beyond? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Adam Kaz
Adam Kaz