Review: Take a Seat at the Bar in Island City, by Laura Adamczyk

When was the last time you told a story to a stranger at a bar? Not an anecdote about your day at work, or that funny internet meme that’s going around—a real story with substance, one that leaves you vulnerable and costs you something each time you tell it. The sort of story that makes you wonder later if you drank too much, or if you should maybe get a therapist (you should).

The narrator of Chicago author Laura Adamczyk’s debut novel Island City does not strike me as the therapy type, but she is the type who chooses “the bar Mom told never to go into” to tell her story, or rather all the stories of her life, over the course of an evening. She drinks too much. And it gets real.

Author Laura Adamczyk, Photo by Libby McGuire

The experience of reading this book is like taking a seat at the bar with a woman who reveals increasingly intimate and tragic details about her life, to you and anyone else who’s willing to listen. She introduces herself to the collection of assembled regulars at the bar, strangers all, and encourages them to buy her drinks. “I’ll tell you why I’m here,” she says. “I’ll tell it, but I’ll need another drink.”

The bar is unnamed, and the narrator too, anonymous like the small Midwestern town she has moved back to as this novel begins. It’s the sort of town where the river drying up that one summer is an event etched in the town’s collective consciousness, where teenagers detassel corn in the fields each summer and people have “that tamped-down Midwestern elation from having suffered in the past and anticipating suffering again in the future.” Anyone who has lived in Illinois outside Chicago—far enough out that you wouldn’t dare say you lived in the suburbs—knows this town. But it could also be in Nebraska. Or Iowa.

That sort of just-specific-enough detail is what makes the narrator’s stories both incredibly relatable and as intimate as listening to your friend tell it. Adamczyk deftly toes this line throughout the entire novel, weaving a beautiful and haunting portrait of a woman who cares enough about her life to recite every detail she can remember, but also regularly drinks herself into a stupor to forget. Or at least she tries to. But like fly paper, the painful memories remain stuck, gruesome forms she can’t look away from: her dad’s numerous illnesses, her stepdad’s abuse, her mom’s inability to protect her and her sister, and her own inability to build a meaningful life. Which is why she decided to give up everything—including her phone, credit cards, insurance, and all her belongings—to return to Island City, where her troubles first started to accumulate. “After this, I’m getting out for good,” she tells us. “There isn’t anything I want to be part of.” Though in her next breath, she does comment wryly to the bartender that the ladies’ room is a mess, in case he wants to look into it. She’ll probably be back.

A note on Dad’s illnesses: the novel ruminates on the fear many of us have of inheriting the diseases that run in our families. It is no spoiler to say the narrator’s father has Alzheimer’s (it’s on the book jacket) and when we meet her in this bar, she wonders if the words she frequently forgets are a sign that she’s headed down a similar road. Yet who among us hasn’t wondered at some point if we’re losing our minds? When we spend a half hour looking for the glasses pushed up on top of our heads, or forget how to spell the word the, or can’t recall the name of that waiter who introduced themselves ten seconds ago. By the end of Island City, I started to question whether the narrator was sick at all, or had simply convinced herself of it so thoroughly that she was ready to throw in the towel on living. It makes a compelling case for the reader to hold on and keep going, carpe diem if you will, even as we empathize with the narrator and all that led up to her booze-fueled monologue of defeat.

Lest I make this novel sound too heavy, let me reassure you that despite the bevy of tragedies that have befallen our narrator, this is also a surprisingly funny book. Often macabre humor, but still. Like the episode in which narrator and Sister invent a demented little game to keep track of style points while disposing of dead cats. Or that time the narrator starts crying while trying to insert her first tampon, facing Sister’s increasingly impatient words of encouragement shouted up through the floor from the room below, while genuinely puzzling over the insane diagram that comes in the tampon box—suggesting a rather bold stance for insertion that to a young girl, might as well be an illustration from the Kama Sutra. If you know, you know.

Despite its frequently serious subject matter, Laura Adamczyk’s Island City is a quick and enjoyable read. This beautifully layered, introspective debut may even inspire you to tell candid stories about your own life, the next time you have the opportunity. But maybe don’t ask strangers to buy your drinks.

Island City is available at Exile in Bookville, Unabridged Bookstore and other independent bookshops and through the Farrar Straus & Giroux website.

Elizabeth Niarchos Neukirch is a Chicago writer and PR consultant for arts & nonprofit organizations. Her writing has appeared in Take ONE MagazineThe Sunlight PressMississippi Review and The Daily Chronicle. She is working on a novel inspired by Greek folktales and lesser-known heroines. Learn more on her website and follow her on Twitter @EJNeukirch.

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Elizabeth Niarchos Neukirch

Elizabeth Niarchos Neukirch is a Greek American writer and PR consultant for Chicago arts and nonprofit organizations. Her fiction, essays and criticism have appeared in publications including Mississippi Review, Take ONE Magazine, The Sunlight Press and The Daily Chronicle. Follow her on Twitter/X at @EJNeukirch and learn more at elizabethniarchosneukirch.com. Photo by Diane Alexander White.