A Literary Tour of Chicago’s Mean Streets

The “street-punk novel” is part and parcel of the Chicago literary tradition. Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning, which came out in 1941, chronicles the life and times of the Polish-American young hoodlum Bruno “Lefty” Bicek. Six years later, the African-American writer, Willard Motley, had his debut novel Knock on Any Door published, featuring the young Italian-American protagonist Nick Romano whose purpose in Motley’s words was to “live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse.” Those same words could be applied to Mookie and J.C., the main characters in 47th Street Black, the 2003 debut novel of Bayo Ojikutu.

Mookie and J.C., like Bicek and Romano are killers. All are born into a tough world, where the streets are mean. Not only are all intent on mere surviving, but they all want to make something of themselves, to become “big shots” in the urban ghettos where they live. They are driven by money and status, living their own twisted version of the American dream.

The Cliff-Dwellers Book Club will be exploring the genre of the Chicago “street-punk novel” in three of our sessions this year. We begin by having Bayo Ojikutu as our guest on February 28 as he discusses 47th Street Black. Exactly a month later, on March 28 (Nelson Algren’s birthday), we will discuss Never Come Morning. On August 22, we will have a discussion of Knock on Any Door.

All these discussions are on Saturdays, beginning at 11:00 am. They take place at the Cliff Dwellers, at 200 South Michigan, directly across the street from the Art Institute. They go on for about an hour or so, often times continuing over lunch. For more information please email me at richardreeder34@gmail.com.            

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Willard Motley

Willard Motley will be inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame on December 6, 2014. 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.motley