Tag Archives: Chicago

The Great Believers: Rebecca Makkai

“This disease has magnified all our mistakes.”

Rebecca Makkai’s splendid novel, The Great Believers moves back and forth between two timelines while exploring themes of survival, loss, and ethics. I read The Hundred Year House back in 2014. I enjoyed it, but The Great Believers is a better, richer, more mature novel.

The novel opens in 1985 Chicago. Nico, the close friend of Yale Tishman, has died of AIDS. Yale, the development director of an art gallery, and his partner, newspaper owner Charlie attend a party organized for Nico’s friends. Nico’s death was divisive. His family never accepted that Nico was gay, never accepted Nico’s gay partner, Terrence. It was only “in his last days, they’d claimed him,” and now Nico is dead, Terrence isn’t welcome at Nico’s funeral vigil, so Nico’s friends gather to remember Nico at a party.

While the party is an important event in the lives of Nico’s family and his little sister, Fiona, Yale, one of the novel’s two central characters is unaware that the party heralds an important turning point in his life. As the months pass, friends became “human dominoes,” as the disease decimates men in Yale’s social circle. In his professional life. Yale tries to secure an art collection  worth several million dollars from an elderly woman whose late husband attended Northwestern.

The elderly woman, Nora, the great-aunt of Fiona, is drawn to Yale for several reasons. Nora, who was at one point an artist, turned to modelling in post WWI Paris. She lost many artist friends to the war, and she notes the loss they represent. These were not famous artists; they died unknown–their talent lost to war.

Every time I’ve gone to a gallery, the rest of my life, I’ve thought about the works that weren’t there. Shadow-paintings, you know, that no one can see but you. But there are all these happy young people around you and you realize no, they’re not bereft. They don’t see the empty spaces.

Nora’s family don’t want her to donate the art to a university, and so they thwart Yale as much as possible. Yale treads a slippery slope in this situation: is it ethical to encourage Nora to donate her unique art collection? Is it ethical to work around the family and conceal the value of the collection? Yale becomes embroiled in a political nightmare when a prestigious donor to the university steps in to intervene. Yale walks a fine line, and it’s complicated by his slippery closet gay-boss and a new male intern.

The second storyline takes place in 2015, 30 years later. Fiona, now 51, is divorced, estranged from her only daughter and works in a resale shop. All of the young men in the gay circle which included her brother are gone. Fiona survived an epidemic, witnessed its cruel devastation first hand, and yet to most people she speaks to, AIDS is something they’ve heard about in a vague way.

Fiona had spent an inordinate amount of her adult life engaged in two different ongoing fantasies. One, especially lately, was the exercise in which she’d walk through Chicago and try to bring it back as it was in 1984, 1985. She’d start by picturing brown cars on the street. Brown cars parked nose-to-tail, mufflers falling off. Instead of the Gap, the Woolworth’s with the lunch counter, Wax Trax! Records, where the oral surgeon was now. And if she could see all that, then she could see her boys on the sidewalks in bomber jackets, calling after each other, running to cross before the light changed. She could see Nico in the distance, walking toward her.

The Great Believers captures the ignorance, the paranoia and the fear of the AIDS epidemic, conveying the atmosphere in Yale’s community of friends, many already ostracized from their families, with intensity and compassion.  Yale’s circle of friends have just begun to hear about the disease and prevention, and while the threat of contagion sparks a range of reactions, for some it’s already too late. While professionally Yale struggles with the ethics of working around Nora’s family, the plot also examines personal responsiblity to sexual partners. The novel subtly argues for a society that accepts homosexuality; the closet married gays here complicate a situation that is already marked with terrible stigma.

While this may sound like some sort of staged, preachy social awareness novel, it isn’t. Reading the novel brought back (like a slap across the face) how people treated gays as lepers, certain that breathing the same air could bring the ‘gay plague’ down on their heads.

This is a good, character-driven story. The novel goes back and forth in time, following Yale and then Fiona’s story. The two plotlines don’t quite come together–although there was a moment when I thought they might mesh. Yale’s story thread was the stronger of the two, simply because the stakes are so much higher. Yale is a marvellous character, a flawed tragic hero who never quite grasps human duplicity.

Review copy.

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The Lady in the Morgue: Jonathan Latimer (1936)

Solomon’s Vineyard is the entertaining, witty story of PI Karl Craven whose job to track down a missing rich dame is complicated by the fact she’s living in a well-guarded cult. Craven is a flawed character; he’s always on the lookout for the next meal, the next woman, and the next brawl. In The Lady in the Morgue, PI Bill Crane is also hunting for a mystery blonde, but in this case, she’s may already be dead. Screenwriter and author Jonathan Latimer (1906-1983) wrote a total of 5 Bill Crane mysteries in the 30s:

Murder in the Madhouse (1935)

Headed For a Hearse (1935)

The Lady in the Morgue (1936)

The Dead Don’t Care (1938)

Red Gardenias (1939)

So here I am reading the series out-of sequence.

LADY IN THE MORGUEThe Lady in the Morgue opens in Chicago with the morgue attendant receiving a crank call for a Miss Daisy Stiff, who according to the attendant can’t come to the phone as “she’s downstairs with th’ other girls.” Crank calls are obviously a regular occurrence with this job, and the attendant has fun with the caller and with the two newspaper reporters sitting in the waiting room. An unidentified blonde, who checked into a “honky-tonk” hotel under the name Alice Ross has been listed as a suicide, and the reporters, along with PI Bill Crane are waiting in the morgue for someone to show who can identify the dead woman. There’s already an aura of mystery surrounding her death, and the waiting reporters speculate about the reasons why someone this beautiful would end her life. It’s an eerie, uneasy scene in the middle of a heat wave set against the maniacal  “feverish” cackles of a drugged  “crazy dame” in the nearby “psychopathic hospital.” Then Crane and the reporters decide to play a tasteless game and place bets on the contents of each vault.

Brilliant white light from a long row of bulbs on the ceiling of the room made their eyes blink. Their nostrils sucked in the sweet, sharp sickening antiseptic smell of formaldehyde. Icy air caused their shirts to stick clammily to their flesh. The steel door shut with a muffled thud, and all three of them momentarily experienced a feeling of being trapped.

While the game is a great excuse to pass time, and more importantly to eye the stiffs in the vault, it’s also a perfect scene which shows both the atmosphere and the callous behaviour of the reporters. Then there’s Crane using his opportunity to eyeball the mystery woman. The people in the vaults are no longer human; they’re just a sideshow, and the beautiful blonde suicide is the prize exhibit:

The attendant was looking at the girl’s body. “I wonder how long a guy would live if he had a wife as swell as that?” He ran a yellow hand over her smooth hip.

“You’d get used to her after a while,” said Crane.

“I’d like to try.” The attendant’s yellow face was wistful. “I’d be willing to trade my wife in if I could get a model like this.”

Crane has been hired by his employer, Colonel Black, to ascertain the identity of the young woman, and while two men show up to ID the blonde, someone else steals her body from the vault….

With the disappearance of the corpse, the mystery surrounding the woman’s identity deepens. Courtland, the scion of a wealthy east coast family turns up as a representative for his relatives who are concerned that the corpse may be a well-heeled heiress. But there’s another claimant, an unhappy gangster who is looking for his runaway wife, and in the wings there’s a third man also on the hunt for the gangster’s wife. With his sidekicks Doc Williams and Tom O’Malley, Crane is determined to recover the corpse and discover her identity. His investigation involves feuding gangsters, a snobby, wealthy matriarch, a sleazy hotel, a dance hall that’s little better than a bordello, and even a little grave robbing.

While Crane, with stubborn tenacity wants to solve the case, he’s not exactly the type that sticks to the rule books. Strongly individualistic, he’s not the sort to be hampered by rules or status., and when it comes to his cases, he brags “I solve ’em, drunk or sober.” He’s the type of man who appears to be easy-going, but in reality his seeming easy-going nature is a just a mask for doing things his way, at his pace. And above all, he’s going to enjoy himself in the process. Once Crane learns that he’s working for a wealthy family, he decides to cash in on the old expense account, and he rents a very nice room in a decent hotel, and then takes advantage of room service.

He even thought up an additional reason for taking the suite. It had windows on two sides of the hotel, he explained, and that gave you variety. You could look at the City Hall, or you could look at the Ashland building. Or, if you wanted to drop bottle, you had a choice. You could drop them on the heads of pedestrians on Randolph Street, or you could drop them on the heads of pedestrians on Clark Street.

Crane also likes to knock back whiskey with his breakfast, and at one point he decides to question a woman who works at a club:

O’Malley shook his big head. “You don’t want anybody to go with you. That’d be foolish. Two persons would make them suspicious. They’d think it was the cops, and everybody’d close up like clams.

“No, I thought about that.” Crane took a long, reflective drink of whiskey. “They won’t think we’re cops if we get drunk enough, not if we get blind drunk.” He waved an arm at Courtland. “that just goes to show you nothing is wasted, not if you’re wise. You and I have been drinking all day. If we were to go to bed it’d all be wasted. yes, sir, every drop, Every sweet little drop.” He sampled his own drink to show what he meant by a sweet little drop and continued. “But I’m wise. You think I just drink for amusement?”

Then he asks his buds “well, gentlemen,” Crane demanded; “which one of you are willin’ to sacrifice your integrity and get drunk so’s you can come with me?”

Bill Crane, a complete reprobate, is an amusing anti-hero, the typical sort of PI, low-rent and unimpressed by status markers. While he doesn’t appear to take the crime seriously, this is just his style. While there’s never any doubt that he’ll solve the mystery, the fun comes from reading his tactics: sleeping in, consuming huge breakfasts, and generally enjoying himself when he can. There are a few scenes between Crane and the female sex, and Crane isn’t exactly much of a gentleman. The Lady in the Morgue is highly recommended for fans of vintage crime novels

Lady in the morgue2Review copy.

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What We’ve Lost is Nothing by Rachel Louise Synder

Apart from gangster lore, I know very little about Chicago, but I wasn’t far into Rachel Louise Synder’s debut novel What We’ve Lost is Nothing, when I realized that the action is set in a real community. Oak Park has its very own Wikipedia page, and according to the book’s intro (which I didn’t read immediately in case it contained spoilers–it didn’t), “Oak Park is  a suburb in flux. To the west, theaters and shops frame posh homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. To the east lies a neighborhood trying desperately to recover from urban decline. Although the community’s Diversity Assurance program has curbed the destructive racial housing practices that migrated from Chicago’s notorious west side over the past decades, cultural and racial integration has been tenuous at best.” I’m including that entire quote because I can’t do better. The name “Austin Boulevard” also crops up in the novel, and I discovered that this road is the border between the crime-ridden community of Austin (termed Chicago’s deadliest neighbourhood) and the community of Oak Park. So who wants to live in Oak Park, the neighbourhood which boasts the largest number of Frank Lloyd Wright designed residences? Come on raise your hands….

what we've lost is nothingWhat We’ve Lost is Nothing focuses on a neighbourhood mass burglary that takes place one afternoon in Oak Park’s fictional Ilios Lane, a cul-de-sac of eight houses–all of which are burglarized. The incident challenges the lives and beliefs of the residents as shock waves from the burglary wash through the neighbourhood and issues of race and class float to the surface.

The premise of the novel sounded … well… interesting.  Burglaries are traumatic events for anyone, and that trauma goes far beyond the loss of stuff that can be replaced. Sometimes items that are worth next to nothing, but hold immense sentimental value, are taken, and then there’s the sense of violation that remains long after the event. For the residents of Ilios Lane, however, the burglary has even deeper ramifications as the residents begin to question whether or not they can live a safe middle-class existence right next to the crime-ridden community of Austin, located on the borders of Oak Park.  This is especially true for Susan McPherson who’s an agent at a housing office and who believes wholeheartedly in “diversity assurance.” She spends her days showing apartments to young couples, proud of her “progressivism,” assuring them that the neighbourhoods are safe.  She believes in her sales pitch until the burglary tells her otherwise. Meanwhile, her husband, Michael, begins to feel that he has to ‘do something,’ and his inner fascist awakes.

The novel begins the day after the burglaries and then follows various characters for the 24-hour fallout after the event. Mary McPherson, a cheerleader, was cutting school with Sofia, a Cambodian friend, and the two girls were high on Ecstasy, under the dining room table during the course of the burglary. Another couple, the Kowalskis, were on holiday, others were at work, and one man, Arthur Gardenia, the novel’s most sympathetic character, who suffers from Hemeralopia, was at his usual daytime post– upstairs in the dark. He heard noises downstairs but was too afraid to investigate. The items stolen from his house are without value to the thieves, but the loss crushes Arthur and tests the limits of his already-fragile existence.

Who goes into a pawnshop in search of used notebooks? What was the street value for such a personal thing? Arthur fought waves of nausea and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He couldn’t even search for them himself, his vision was too poor. They were simply gone. He sat on his bed, fighting a growing sense of helplessness, waiting, it might seem, until the sanctity of his haven was restored, the one place he felt he could emerge from his own helplessness. This, too, he had to admit, was what had been invaded. Not his home, but his sense of security.

Meanwhile Mary finds that Caz, the school lothario, is attracted by her new-found notoriety and increased “social capital.” Understanding that the burglary “catapulted her into Caz’s periphery,” she’s desperate to hang on to that attention.

While the novel, with its emphasis on class and race has a very interesting premise, I wish the plot had spent more time on some of the other residents; additional development with some of the more neglected characters would have produced a more even story. We see that for some residents of Oak Park, life there is an arrival, a step up into the middle-class, but for others, it’s a daily fight to keep their heads above water. While the burglary realistically brought some issues between the neighbours to the surface, the whole diversity issue was hammered too heavily. It was there front and central immediately through geography and Mrs McPherson’s employment, and the additional elements (particularly her run) moved the story from incident to cliché. The portrayal of the Cambodian family was also weak.

Unfortunately, there seemed to be a little too much emphasis on Mary and Caz, and aren’t cheerleaders, by their very role, popular? At least that was my impression, but here Mary is painted as a bit of a wall flower who’s desperate for Caz’s attention. The final scene between Caz and Mary was far too extended and resulted in an unfortunate and not entirely believable conclusion.  On the positive side, I liked the way the novel showed that the residents all led fairly fragile existences for one reason or another, and that these lives were shattered by the burglaries. If you’re on the bottom levels of society, suburbia may seem enviable, an impossible dream, but middle-class life brings its own nightmares, and the author explored that aspect of the story well. Also of note are the fast-forward moments which give us glimpses into the futures of some of the characters, and the insertion of the listserv comments where various paranoias and beliefs emerge, and everyone unleashes an opinion they might not express face-to-face.

Review copy

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The Secrets of Grown-ups by Vera Caspary

When reading a biography (or an autobiography), it seems impossible to conclude the book without getting an idea of whether or not I’d like the person I’m reading about. Sometimes the life story of another is incredibly sad (Barbara Peyton) or spectacularly disastrous (Nancy Spungen & Sid Vicious), but after reading the wonderful autobiography The Secrets of Grown-ups, I concluded that I would have liked Vera Caspary very much indeed. I liked her for her determination, her versatility, her intelligence and also for the fact that she frankly admits to telling some whoppers.

For those who’ve never heard Caspary’s name, she was an author, screenwriter, & playwright and is arguably most remembered  for her novel Laura (made into that very famous noir film), and there’s also Bedelia (made into a British noir film). But apart from those two novels, there are many more–now sadly out-of-print.

Vera Caspary was born in 1899 and died in 1987. That’s not so long ago, and yet when Vera’s story begins, she gives us a glimpse into another world. Her relatives were second generation Jewish German-Prussian emigrants, and Vera was the youngest of four children. Vera details her early childhood in Chicago in just a few pages, and while there’s nothing too unusual here, a picture begins to emerge of a strong, determined personality and an early attraction to writing stories.

Vera’s elder sister, Irma, who gave “second-rate candy to little girls whose grandparents had Russian or Polish accents” was 15 years older than Vera, but it was from Irma that Vera learned some valuable lessons about snobbery:

 Prejudice is as destructive to those who employ it as to its victims, and [that] devotion to material possessions is a waste of life.

The family seemed to be fairly affluent in Vera’s early childhood, but when her father suffered a series of financial setbacks, she enrolled at a business college rather than university, and it looked as though she faced a dreary, predictable future.

Vera started as a stenographer but always wanted a “writing job.” Most doors were closed to her because she was female, and she was never content with that–even though many of the jobs she had paid well and granted her a certain amount of autonomy. She worked her way into the advertising business, and at one point crafted a correspondence class in ballet dancing taught by the legendary (read mythical) Sergei Marinoff. Her adventures in advertising are absolutely hilarious; this woman had a natural talent for fabrication, so it’s no wonder she went on to become a writer. Inevitably Vera, who was far too intelligent for anything rote or repetitive, grew bored with advertising:

Whether I wrote coy sales letters in the name of the spinster sisters who manufactured cold cream, plotted a chicken tonic campaign or exploited a new sex book, it was all the same. I worked like a computer that produces variations when different buttons are pressed. I had considered my work creative until I realized that I was merely manufacturing sales devices.

 When writing the story of her life, Vera often seems to go for conveying the atmosphere of the times rather than offering intense detail. She describes her connection with the Leopold-Loeb case, the energy & insanity of prohibition, shoot-outs between rival cab companies, and the dreariness of the Depression.  The story is light on family details and the romances in her life (although men are mentioned). This is not a tell-all, gossipy bio; a few of men appear to have been significant for a various periods, but then they fade without mention. Not that I care how many men Vera slept with or when, but I had questions about a couple of people mentioned who then subsequently disappeared from the pages.

The emphasis goes instead to Vera’s incredible career. Frequently she opted for independence instead of a steady paycheck, and as a result, at times it seemed as though she faced running out of money, but work always appeared. That’s not to say that Vera sat and waited at home for fortune to knock on her door; she didn’t. This woman hustled, and at one point she even worked as a gypsy telling fortunes in a tea-room.

The book seems weakest in Vera’s explanation of her communist period. It reads like an apologia. Did Vera have unresolved questions about this period of her life or are there necessary gaps ( to protect others) here that weaken the explanation? Perhaps it’s because the sense of chagrin seems mismatched with the rest of her life. Vera’s interest in communism, which only lasted for a short period, seems perfectly understandable. At one point, prior to WWII, Vera says that stories were beginning to circulate about the fate of jews under Hitler. People told her this was Soviet propaganda. It’s fairly easy to see why Vera became a communist–many people saw a choice between being a Nazi or being a communist. Vera chose the latter. She paid the price for that when she was later gray-listed in Hollywood during McCarthyism. Sometimes moral decisions are difficult to unravel, but I still sense that the whole story just isn’t here. The Rosecrest Cell is described by its author as her “confession disguised as a novel.”

One of the marvellous things about this book are the vivid portrayals of people Vera knew who are now lost to history. Here’s one of Vera’s first bosses–a colourful character who recognised Vera’s intelligence and harnessed it for a while:

Schoenfeld was a man of the world, out of Bucharest by way of Paris, Berlin, and London. The books on his shelves and the periodicals that came to our office were in three languages. He wore a ring on his index finger, a fur-collared overcoat and a broad-brimmed black hat like artists in the Latin Quarter. As vice-president and manager of a wholesale grocery firm that specialized in imported delicacies, he ordered much of the merchandise through his own brokerage office, collecting commissions on goods he sold to himself. He felt no qualms about this double-dealing because he was a Socialist who enjoyed exploiting capitalists. So long as the system prevailed Schoenfeld profited by it. A middleman’s middleman, he practised the most cynical of capitalist tactics and laughed at the trickery. He subscribed to many Socialist papers, domestic and foreign, as were available in wartime and used their political prophecies to guide him in stockmarket investments. That he called his brokerage office Internationala was another of his jests. At the time I had not the slightest idea of its significance. Nor did his customers.

There’s also “New York legend,” Horace Liveright, one of the founders of  Modern Library. At the top of his game, and known as the “Casanova” of the publishing world, he off-handedly proposed to Vera with the fine print that he’d control her work. She laughily refused and within a few years, he was broke, alcoholic and dying when she saw him for the last time. There are glimpses too of the bizarre publisher MacFadden, a man who “collected freaks” and held an “unending opposition to the medical profession, devotion to muscle power and the sanctity of daily defecation.” Unfortunately, his opinions extended to his children, and it’s in these pages that Vera tells the tragic story of 19-year-old Byrne–a “story she always wanted to write.”

Here’s a quote I particularly liked from Vera after the death of her beloved father:

My father was dead. But the gold of the wildflowers was not dimmed and I could not be unhappy in May sunshine. It was a moment never forgotten, a lesson for the living. If I failed to relish the colors of the earth, to dance to its rhythms, I’d thwart the dear man whose last days had been lived in the hope of my happiness. That field of wild mustard, still green in my memory, has sustained me through disappointment and shock and a season of more grievous mourning.

The love of Vera Caspary’s life was Igee (Isidor) Goldsmith. He was a married man when they met, and sometime into their relationship, as a naturalised citizen, he was recalled to Britain (“All able-bodied males residing in foreign countries were called back to Britain” ). She gave him the “rights to Bedelia” with the understanding that she’d write the screenplay, and this agreement paved the way for her perilous journey by sea to Britain. She did not agree with moving the story from 1913 Connecticut to 1938 Monte Carlo & Yorkshire, but that’s what happened, and this marvellous gem of a film was made at Ealing Studios. Also detailed quite extensively is the production of Preminger’s Laura and Vera’s problems with the script and final product.

The book (published in 1979) continues for just one short chapter after the death of Igee in 1964, and yet Vera Caspary lived for 23 more years–a great part of her extensive body of work was produced in this lengthy, solitary period, so there’s the sense that life ‘ended’ in at least some fashion with the death of Igee.

Vera Caspary’s personality bursts from these pages, and I finished the book with the sense that I’d met her. This is a marvellous autobiography, a wonderful read for anyone interested in her work, and I’ll be reading some of her other novels before too long.

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