24 May 2016

Books: Chicago By Brian Doyle (2016)

In what is essentially a love letter, a sweet valentine to Chicago, author Brian Doyle delivers, with great skill, a novel about a certain time in the city I was born in (though grew up in its suburbs) with such intimate detail, the reader can easily feel the strum and thrum of the city, smell the empanadas of Mrs Manfredi, and smell the waters of that great lake where the city grew up around.

“On the last day of summer, some years ago, a young college graduate moves to Chicago and rents a small apartment on the north side of the city, by the vast and muscular lake. This is the story of the five seasons he lives there, during which he meets gangsters, gamblers, policemen, a brave and garrulous bus driver, a cricket player, a librettist, his first girlfriend, a shy apartment manager, and many other riveting souls, not to mention a wise and personable dog of indeterminate breed named Edward.”

Having been born there and lived within its shadow for most of my life, Doyle’s Chicago reminds me why I still love that sometimes difficult city, and why LA (where I live near now) will never be anything but runner-up. 

It begins in the fall of 1978 and into the early 1980s, and the unnamed narrator (obviously Doyle himself) gives us is sensory data of Chicago –“the sounds and feelings of things” where “buildings crowded the streets;” a Chicago with its “bone-chilling cold, and shuffle of boots leery and weary of ice, and the groan and sigh of buses coming to a stop, and the whir and whine of evening traffic on Lake Shore Drive;” along with “the shriek of trains leaning into the curves of elevated tracks near Wabash and Wacker.”

I remember everything that happened in this book, know of the all the places he mentions, of the gangs and Archdiocese (Doyle worked at US Catholic Magazine) that ruled with an iron fist while ignoring the corruption around it. Then there was the snowstorm of 1979 that paralyzed the city and ultimately cost the Mayor his job (and the rise of Jane Byrne, the cities first and so far, only female mayor). But ultimately the book is less a history of that time (though it is), but more about what Chicago has done, has always done, to the people that were born, raised, and died there and the many who came to it seeking a new life and then move on, and that imprint on the soul it leaves. Even me, now eleven years nearly gone since I made the somewhat rash decision to leave, still miss the city, the friends I made and wonder of its skyline. 

Chicago, for me, is a gorgeous novel, filled with some interesting characters, human, canine, and concrete alike, and takes me back to a time when I thought there was no better place to live. It should be required reading for many Chicagoians, as well as those who visited and have felt a longing to go back.

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