Willard Motley’s first novel, Knock on Any Door, is on the short list of the greatest Chicago novels ever written. This African American writer brilliantly creates the story of Italian American Nick Romano, a street thug who eventually murders. This book also has the best fictional account of life and death in Chicago’s Depression-Era Skid Row.
Motley began his career writing the Bud Billiken column for the Chicago Defender newspaper for eighteen months in the early 1920s. In the 1930s, he co-founded Hull House Magazine. From 1940-43 he worked for the WPA Federal Writers Project, where he gathered much of his material for Knock on Any Door, which was published in 1947 and achieved instant success. Although his subsequent literary achievements never measured up to his first novel, Motley remains a legendary Chicago writer.
In the persona of Mr. Dooley, a fictional Bridgeport barkeeper, no writer better chronicled the day to day trials and tribulations of Chicago’s immigrant and first-generation Irish community than Finley Peter Dunne. As a newspaper writer for the Chicago Evening Post, Dunne, born in 1867 to Irish immigrant parents, wrote more than three hundred Mr. Dooley monologue vignettes fraught with an urban sagacity in the context of everyday speech, that are both serious and humorous at the same time.
Dunne eventually moved to New York and joined Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell at American Magazine, and made a reputation for himself as an outstanding journalist on national and international issues. Yet we remember him best today for being the voice of the pioneer generations of Chicago Irish whose hard work and political savvy shaped the urban landscape of the Windy City.
Lyman Frank Baum lived in Chicago from 1891-1910. Baum wrote more than sixty books in his lifetime, the most famous of which was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written in 1899 when he lived at 1677 North Humboldt Boulevard. Most of his books were children-oriented, including the dozen or so Oz books, Father Goose, American Fairy Tales and Dot of Merriment. Baum’s stories of fantasy and whimsy continue to delight readers of all ages. He highly deserves to claim his rightful place among the most creative writers that have called Chicago their home.
Today we celebrate the 104th birthday of Chicago author Nelson Algren. His two 1940s novels set in the hardscrabble streets of the near Northwest Side, Never Come Morning and The Man with the Golden Arm, are remarkably written, weaving haunting dream sequences into otherwise highly realistic narratives. Algren’s creative genius was recognized by the American literary community when The Man with the Golden Arm received the first National Book Award in fiction in 1950.
These two novels depict a world colored in shadow and neon. It is a world where the sun never seems to shine. There are no heroes among these Polish American characters who are confined to their own ghetto, bordering between Ashland and Western, and between Chicago and North. They are immigrants and first generation young people who discover that the American dream really is more mythology than reality. Frankie Majcinek and Bruno Bicek, the main protagonists in the novels, have fates that seem preordained for disaster, as is the case for many individuals trapped in a culture of poverty, who live in neighborhoods rife with crime and violence.
Algren’s characters are the flotsam and jetsam of urban life. They are the hustlers and the hustled. Yet, rather than condemning their lives, he finds that these troubled souls are part of our shared humanity. In the preface of Never Come Morning, Algren cites a quote from Walt Whitman: “I feel I am of them—-I belong to those convicts and prostitutes myself—-And henceforth I will not deny them—-For how can I deny myself.” New York City was lucky to call Whitman its native son. Chicago can proudly claim Algren as its own.
Vengeance is the fifth in a series of crime noir novels by Benjamin Black, the pen name of the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville. These novels set in the still staid and parochial Dublin of the 1950s feature Garret Quirke, a hard-drinking hospital pathologist.
The book opens with a suicide at sea. Victor Delahaye, a prominent businessman shoots himself on his pleasure craft, accompanied by Davy Clancy, the son of his business associate, Jack Clancy. Although the Protestant Delahayes and the Catholic Clancys are partners in a successful garage business for three generations, it is clear that the Clancys’ don’t feel like equal partners. This perceived inferiority relationship in the partnership leads to financial shenanigans on Jack Clancy’s part, which ultimately leads to his murder.
Also complicating matters between the two families is the romantic entanglement between Davy Clancy and Mona Delahaye, the promiscuous second wife of Victor Delahaye. Toss in Maggie Delahaye, the grief-stricken spinster sister of Jack, add the playboy identical twins of Victor from his first marriage, the naïve James, and the sinister Jonas, and for seasoning toss in a dash of Sylvia, the long-suffering wife of Jack Clancy’s infidelities and the Delahaye/Clancy dysfunctional metaphorical stew thickens.
Quirke, with the aid of Detective Inspector Hackett, eventually sorts things out and we discover clarity at the end of the book. This was my first read in the Quirke series, and I would have liked a little more on the pathologist’s past. I also thought that the author was somewhat lacking in detailing both the places and mood of Dublin in the 1950s.
Yet no one today writes crime noir with the elegance and grace of Benjamin Black. His prose elevates a genre often mired in clipped and staccato writing. Ms. Agatha Christie would have delighted in reading Mr. Black’s work.
My “Chicago Sketches” reading date at the Barnes and Noble at Jackson and State in Downtown Chicago has been rescheduled to Thursday evening, February 28 at 6 pm. Hope to see you then!
The Life of Pi, nominated this year for an Oscar for Best Film, is the ninth Booker Prize winning novel to have been adapted to the cinema. Two adaptations have captured the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. These are The English Patient and Schindler’s List (the latter being based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, Schindler’s Ark). The other cinematic adaptations are Remains of the Day, Disgrace, Heat and Dust, Possession, Last Orders and Oscar and Lucinda.
I really enjoyed today’s interview on WBEZ with Rick Kogan. Thanks, Rick, for the opportunity to promote “Chicago Sketches.” I will be doing two readings in February. One will be at the Evanston Public Library on Tuesday evening February 12 at 7pm. The other will be at the Barnes & Noble at State and Jackson on Thursday evening February 21 at 6 pm. I hope to see many of you at either of these locations.
The author Bernard Malamud is best known for two of his novels, The Natural and The Fixer, both of which were made into very successful movies. However Malamud also wrote many short stories, over the course of some forty years, which feature an amazing gamut of colorful and memorable characters, as well as compelling narrative lines.
I will be teaching a course on Malamud’s short stories at Oakton Community College’s Emeritus Program beginning January 22nd. The course will consist of six ninety-minute sessions, meeting on consecutive Tuesday afternoons from 12:00 to 1:30, concluding on February 26th. For information on how to register for the course, which is called “The Magical Stories of Bernard Malamud,” please go to the Emeritus website www.oakton.edu/emeritus.
I will be teaching a course on the Man Booker Prize beginning Tuesday, January 22, 2013, at the Oakton Community College Emeritus program in Skokie. I decided on teaching this class at Oakton when twenty-two people attended my presentation on the “Man Booker Prize” in Retrospect” at The Book Stall in Winnetka last April. Interest in the Man Booker grows each year in the States, especially with the popularity of the last two winners, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies and Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.
The Man Booker Prize is the top literary achievement in the English-speaking world outside of the United States. Novels by authors who are citizens of the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British commonwealth) and Ireland are selected annually for juried competition. Publishers submit novels to a Man Booker review committee each year and the judges are charged with reading about 120 novels in a six to seven time span. A long list of 12 novels is announced in July, and a shortlist of six is announced in September. The winning novel is selected in October at a ceremony in London that is growing so grand that is now getting to be known, in some circles, as the Literary Academy Awards.
I have read all the winners since competition began in 1969. And with just a handful of exceptions, I enjoyed these novels immensely. In reading many of these novels you get a literary perspective of the rise and fall of the British Empire, from the perspectives of both the colonizer and colonized.
If you have interest in taking my course, which meets from 10:00 am until 11:30 am on six consecutive Tuesdays, starting this coming January 22, please call the Oakton Emeritus office at 847-635-1414 or visit the Emeritus website at http://www.oakton.edu/emeritus.