samarov's reviews
66 reviews

Will We All Still See Each Other Afterward by Tyler Dempsey

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Reviewed in Maudlin House, 2/16/24

Charles Bukowski called love a dog from hell but Tyler Dempsey shows it to be an animal resilient enough to withstand arctic freezes and the weeks-long days and nights of life near the top of world.

A love triangle with barely-erased phantom vectors and points, the book tracks the messy fallout after the end of a relationship between Tyler, a park ranger at Denali National Park in Alaska, and the mysterious L—.

Told in sentence or two fragmentary paragraphs, text messages, emoji, descriptions of GIFs, and the occasional QR link to hiphop-heavy playlists, it’s a novel that cuts out most of the fat that is the meat of so much fiction yet somehow manages to retain the gravity and resonance that separates art from the commonplace blog entry or social media gripe.

I thought of Sam Pink’s work while reading the book but mostly because of the way the spare sentences look on the page. Dempsey’s point of view is more intimate, softer than Pink’s. To be sure, both writers have no shortage of male bravado, but Dempsey’s approach is gentler. Or, at least, that’s what he projects. I mention Pink because he’s a master of this deceptively simple style of prose and there are many imitators who do nothing but copy it without adding anything of their own. Dempsey definitely has his own thing going. His setting, for one, is as much a character as the stand-ins for himself and his paramours are.

The day-to-day difficulties and absurdity of life in Alaska serve as a fitting backdrop for the soap opera of Tyler’s love life.

A woman in a blue fleece that says ALASKA, hood drawstringed so only her nose and bottom halves of her eyes show, tries for our attention. On tiptoes with her arm all the way up, waving a pink, frilly glove. Like we’re soldiers leaving harbor and she hopes the image burns in our minds before we die.

Tyler, L—, Kristie B. (the woman Tyler hooks up with to get over L—), and several others all work in and around Alaska’s tourism industry. The remote harshness of the environment leads to moments of casual intimacy that might seem uncomfortable in a more temperate setting. For example, the first time Tyler visits Kristie’s house he jumps in the shower first thing, right after saying hello and dropping the pizza he brought over on the counter. It’s a particularity of their lives that it’s assumed after the miles he has to travel just to come over to watch Netflix that he be allowed to clean up to make himself presentable. Many small details like this separate Dempsey’s novel from so many other chronicles of messy millennial love. But there’s no shortage of mess and ugliness.

On the rebound after his breakup, Tyler speculates about why Kristie wants to hang out with him.

Katie and Abby split up a few months back
after four-and-a-half-years. I’m assuming
L— told Katie about our breakup and now
she’s looking for solidarity. Mostly to
heckle/interrogate me.

We’ve never kicked it without company.

Hence the assumption.

I’m sad/lonely enough to take that

What follows is a lot more than a casual hookup and the fallout leaves more carnage than the relationship that precipitated it. I suppose the lazy shorthand for this kind of writing is auto-fiction but I’ve never found that to be a term that does anything but demean or diminish, or, worse, serve as branding. Writers since cuneiform days have used their lives as material for telling stories. Where else would it come from? The fact that Dempsey uses his own name for his protagonist will spur the obvious question of how close this narrative hues to his life but even if he were to answer it would not account for what makes this book ring true.

A more interesting question is why L— is the only one whose name is hidden. It makes her the most important person in the story though she’s barely ever on the page.
Monograph by Chris Ware by Chris Ware

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The experience of reading Chris Ware’s Monograph is inextricably tied to what it’s about. Its inordinate size transforms a grownup into a child. One can set the book down on a table or on one’s lap, but it will take up all available space and make it impossible to do anything else but turn its pages, often having to stick one’s face within inches to catch some of the infinitesimal detail or tiny text. It’s a rare accomplishment these days to make a work of art which demands complete physical and mental attention to be appreciated but Ware has done that with this volume. There’s no casually flipping through while checking Twitter and watching a TV show; one reads this book or sets it down and does something else.

Going all the way to back his college days at the University of Texas and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ware was always wrestling with the language of comics. One of his first widely-circulated strips, “I Guess” was published in Art Spiegelman’s Raw in 1991 while he was still in school. In it, the panels show a superhero’s adventures while the word balloons and captions tell a childhood story about a boy’s fraught relationship with his stepfather. His experimentation would evolve and grow as he moved on to longer narratives about Quimby Mouse, Jimmy Corrigan, Rusty Brown, and scores of other recurring characters.

Ware’s book-length essay serves several functions. It is an introduction to the finished strips, sketches, process drawings, cardboard models, wooden sculptures, and family photographs which fill the lion’s share of page space. It is also a revealing rumination on his childhood, artistic development, and aesthetic philosophy. It is also, at times, a witheringly funny critique of secondary arts education, the art world, and American society as a whole.

One of the more fascinating insights Ware shares into his process is that he works improvisationally, allowing what he draws to suggest the developing narrative rather than planning out the story, then illustrating it. For someone who, as Ira Glass hilariously puts it in his introduction, is a “control enthusiast”, this intuitive method may seem surprising. But since so many of Ware’s stories concern the perils of memory this approach makes sense the more one thinks about it. Scripting the leaps in time and space traversed from panel to gutter, along dotted lines, riding shooting arrows all over any given page of a Ware comic might be too tall an order even for the master himself.

In another revealing passage he talks about comics being a linguistic rather than illustrative art; that rather than just enhancing accompanying words, the drawings themselves must be read to be understood. This is why he works so hard to make them as clean and clear as he possibly can. He doesn’t want the reader to linger over how this or that detail is rendered but rather to register both words and images as parts of the flowing narrative.

Monograph is a rare joy for Ware fans, as it revisits so many of his career highlights while also sharing lesser known work and personal anecdotes. The large reproductions of the automatons, toys, and model houses he builds as a respite from the long hours at the drawing table are a delight to peruse as well.
The Other Paris: An illustrated journey through a city's poor and Bohemian past by Lucy Sante, Lucy Sante

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reviewed in the Chicago Tribune

A city has many faces but the one it presents to a visitor most often is the one the boosters, chamber of commerce  types, and captains of industry would like us to see. A city as seemingly well-known as Paris—the city of lights, of romance—doesn't need PR men to sell itself. But there is more to the place than the postcard would like us to believe. Away from the boulevards is another city, one we might never discover because those who live there don't have the means, interest, or forethought to save it for posterity.  Unlike the famous places we celebrate “...because the rich have the power to save the things they love.” —as Luc Sante writes early in The Other Paris, there are many corners which would be lost to the dustbin of history were it not for the curious passersby, the types who are interested in what's beyond the glitz and glamor. The documenters of the side street and the hidden cellar are the heroes of Sante's book and our tour guides to a very different Paris than we've been shown before. 
The flaneur, broadly defined, is a stroller, a person who shambles about the town and notices obscure  details. Sante gathers a murderers' row of them to shine his light down every darkened alley of the French capital. The heart of the book is concerned with the enormous transformations which took place in the 19th century. Baron Haussmann's grand renovations obliterated whole neighborhoods to widen boulevards and razed centuries-old structures to plan parks for the well-heeled. Fortunately, through early photography and illustration which accompanies the “verbal photography” of many of his sources on every page, Sante shows us the long-gone places sacrificed to progress. 
“Everything is always going away, every way of life is continually subject to disappearance, all who reach their middle years have lost the landscape of their childhood, everyone given to introspection feels threatened.” 
Sante grudgingly allows that innovations such as central plumbing are a public good while decrying many of the other “improvements” of urban renewal. He casts his lot with the ragpickers and streetwalkers and his readers are better off for it. His team of streetside noticers introduce us to men who make a living selling cigarettes reassembled from spent butts, women whose sole job is to waken others for work, and dozens of other obsolete employments. As the city was cleaned up and modernized many marginal types were literally forced to the periphery, forced to scrounge on the outskirts of the expanding metropolis. There, around the former medieval walls, a zone of lawlessness allowed for vice and improvised entrepreneurship to flourish. The city fathers did their best to scrub the grime away but— 
“The city's principal constituent matter is accrued time. The place is lousy with it. Not everyone is happy about this, since the past is burdensome and ungovernable and never accords with totalizing ideologies or unified design theories or schemes for maximizing profit.” 
Over the two hundred or so years covered in these pages we meet cabaret warblers, pimps, poets, petty thieves, anarchists, but hardly any representatives of the upper crust. The Louvre and the Bois de Bologne have no need of champions but old dancehalls and their denizens deserve to be remembered and Sante marshals the memories of both famed writers like Victor Hugo as well as those of long-forgotten criminals in order to insure that we don't forget. 
Sante's great fear is that the forces of urban improvement will sanitize away the character of the city in favor of security and cookie-cutter sameness. That there will be no ragged wonder left to discover. No chance to drift through streets and find the oddities which make one place distinct from any other. As he writes at the end: “The history of Paris teaches us that beauty is a by-product of danger, that liberty is at best a consequence of neglect, that wisdom is entwined with decay.” We would do well to heed his words and not eliminate the mess which makes the city so different than the suburban shopping mall which so many city planners wish us all to inhabit. 
Bad Boy: My Life on and Off the Canvas by Eric Fischl, Michael Stone

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Eric Fischl was one of the art stars of the '80s. Along with Julian Schnabel and David Salle, he brought big, personal, and messy feelings back to painting after the austere solipsism of much of the artwork done in the '60s and '70s. His rise coincided with the ugly materialism championed and celebrated in the Reagan era and documented it as well, in its own way. The group of artists he was lumped in with were dubbed the Neo-Expressionists, a label Fischl rails against understandably; no creative person likes being put in a box. I was always intrigued by the subject-matter of his work, if underwhelmed at times by its execution. Fischl was in art school at a time when skills like drawing were sneered at and it shows. He spent years teaching himself the rudiments his teachers thought it unnecessary to bother with.

In painting, style and substance are related simultaneously, so when one of the two is lacking the communication can become staticky and unclear. What Fischl shows: masturbating boys, rich white people sunning themselves, and tourist's views of other cultures all resonate because they come from lived moments. They reflect suburban, buttoned-up and repressed America's hopes and fears a bit like David Lynch's films do. They both reach for the nightmares inherent inside all dreams.

Fischl is not a natural writer and has a co-author, Michael Stone, to help tell his story. He has also asked many of his famous and important friends to contribute testimonials. It's odd to be told over and over again what a master storyteller and wicked wit he is when there's so little evidence of either in this book. I'm glad Fischl gets to be best friends with Steve Martin but don't really need Martin's words added to emphasize what a terrific guy Fischl is. I'm reading his book which means I find him fascinating enough to want to know more about. No celebrity infomercials necessary.

The best parts of the book are those in which he straightforwardly relates what it was like to be in art school in the late-'60s and at the center of the absurd art boom of the '80s. I can't recall a book that used  I and me and my quite as many times as this one does. It's difficult to avoid those words in a first-person narrative, of course, but I found myself actually counting them up while stumbling over his three-hundred-page minefield. After a time a memoir's source and point of view should be implicit, shouldn't it?
I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell

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Richard Hell (nee Meyers) ran away from home and helped invent punk rock. Along the way he bedded untold numbers of women and developed a healthy heroin addiction. I love all the bands that he was involved with (Television, The Heartbreakers, Richard Hell and the Voidoids) but what gets me most about his story is that he knew when it was time to walk away. We live in an era where every band that ever was seems to have reunited. Everyone wants to relive and reenact their peak moments rather than actually taking the trouble to make new ones. It's very hard not to succumb to it. About ten years ago, when Hell's first band, Television, played a reunion gig in Chicago, I went. I've probably listened to Marquee Moon more than any other record but was too young to see the band in their original, living incarnation. I got what I wanted out of the experience but there's no doubt that it was augmented and enhanced by the fifteen years of listening to that record. If I focused too closely up at Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd on the stage of the Metro the illusion most likely would've been shattered. Hell insists over and over again in his book that rock-and-roll is a young man's game. There's an immediacy, an in-the-momentness to it that a reunion—no matter how well-intentioned—can never capture. Hell recognized this and walked away.

Since quitting music in 1984 he has focused on writing, publishing poetry and novels, and living in the same Lower East Side apartment he moved into in his rockstar days. At times the prose in his memoir sags under the weight of “meaningful” words, culled no doubt from his decades of composing poetic stanzas and couplets. Summing up key moments in one's life is a difficult job and flowery words aren't always a help. The parts of the book I found most compelling are when he just describes things as they happened rather than trying to draw conclusions or insist on the import of this or that event. Hell crossed paths with enough interesting people in the art and music spheres not to need any extra emphasis or proof of the significance of his role in the culture of the '70s. The passages I liked least were ones where he settles old scores. There's a bitter, sour-grapes tinge to the way he relates parting ways with Television's Tom Verlaine and not becoming The Sex Pistols (while inspiring much of what they popularized.) Using your book to repay decades-old slights seems unnecessary and small-minded but perhaps he's just one of those people that won't let things go. Fortunately there are more than enough compelling anecdotes to keep a reader's interest. Occasionally Hell is even generous to those that had wronged him, like in this sweet passage about running into Verlaine after years of not communicating with him at all: 
  “When Tom spoke to me there outside that bookstore, it was forty-two years ago, 1969, and he was nineteen years old; we both were. His misshapen, larded flesh somehow just emphasized the purity of the spirit inside. He made a bunch of beautiful recordings too. Who gives a fuck about the worldly achievers, the succeeders at conventional ambitions?”
Ketchup by Sam Pink

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reviewed in the Chicago Reader

Sam Pink makes it look easy and it isn’t. Over some dozen books of poetry, stories, and prose, he’s refined a spare but precise style that reads like truth. He gives alley dwellers, dishwashers, and city wanderers the dignity and gravitas that other writers normally reserve for the upper echelon. Pink continues to write about these kinds of people with care in his recently released novel, Ketchup, one of his best books so far.

Set in a small town in southwest Michigan, the book chronicles a few days in the life of an unnamed narrator as he cooks and serves drinks at a bar and grill called Pop’s. He spends his leisure time shooting the breeze with old people and daydreaming at a duck pond. This is how Mary, the narrator’s new boss, describes the job:

‘You’re gonna,’ she says, not quite making eye contact. ‘You’re gonn-a, I mean, heh, look I’ll tell ya how it is, you’re gonna do it all, k? People come in here and wanna do this and that, I tellem, I says look, ya do it all. Ya work the grill, ya bartend, ya serve. That’s how it is, alright? Sound good?’

The interview for my own first bartending gig was eerily similar. Most people you meet say a lot without meaning to. Small, seemingly forgettable everyday moments add up to a kind of unassuming profundity. Pink is a perceptive chronicler of daily life. He catches odd turns of phrase and unintentionally revelatory insights as well as any writer I know. 

I had heard of Pink for some time, but only started reading his books this year. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Besides the fact that he’s a fiercely iconoclastic writer and painter, bent on making his way largely apart from the machinations of the larger literary and art worlds, his documentation of his experiences in the service industry hit particularly close to home for me. As someone who’s worked at bakeries, restaurants, and bars, and driven a taxi over the past 35 years, my antennae are always up for writers who make those lowly industries their subject matter. I’m not interested in privileged slummers who go “undercover” or moonlight in jobs they don’t actually need, as a means to have something to write about. I never get that feeling reading Pink. He doesn’t put the people he writes about below himself, nor does he examine them like an anthropologist. Their life is also his.

That’s not to say that he’s the same as regulars at Pop’s like the character Ronny in Pink’s Ketchup:

He always tells me the story of losing all his money when the stock market ‘took a shit’ in 2008.

The story usually involves him putting a finger to his head like a gun.

Lost close to a million dollars overnight.

Which is when he started drinking more, developed diabetes, lost a leg, and brings us to today.

I can’t fact-check this or any of the other stories Pink writes, but after decades of listening to people’s tales of woe in bars and taxis, I have no doubt they’re 100 percent real (at least to the tellers.)

Pink answered a few questions via text recently. He cites William S. Burroughs’s Junky as the book that inspired him to write. When I ask whether it was the style or subject of that book that grabbed him, he answers, “[ . . . ] neither, I was reading Junky and thought about how much I was enjoying it and it was really cool that he took the time to make something that brought me that joy so it made me want to do that one day.” He also mentioned Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers,” as a favorite. Some of Pink’s writing about work life reminds me of Charles Bukowski’s Post Office and Factotum as well.

His prose often looks like poetry on the page. Most paragraphs are a single sentence; very few are more than two or three. It gives the writing a deceptive lightness. He pares the verbiage down to essentials but pulls no punches. In between matter-of-fact interactions, Pink seamlessly slips in philosophical musings and existential wonder.

In Ketchup, the narrator’s downtime is often spent at a duck pond, where he picks out a white mallard with an odd poof of hair on the crown of his head. He’s christened Bedhead and over time becomes part avatar/part spirit animal. Pink identifies with this odd, ornery bird as much as he does with Mack, the conspiracy-minded old man who runs a repair shop no one visits, a few doors down from Pop’s. He’s able to accept those he comes into contact with on their own terms and renders their lives as worthy—whether they think the same or not.

Aside from his focus on the service industry in his writing, the perils of dealing with the publishing industry also make me identify with Pink. He has published with a succession of indie publishers over the past two decades, but has now struck out on his own. In addition to Ketchup, he has recently self-published handsome new editions of some of his out-of-print back catalog. They are all designed by Michael Kazepis and feature Pink’s distinctive artwork on the covers. They are available on Amazon, but if you value workers and want to support Pink, you should contact him via Twitter or Instagram and he’ll send you the books himself. 

At a time when colossal media companies swallow every bit of human endeavor and spit it out in uniform, easily digestible containers, designed solely for a consumer to crave more, without knowing why, it’s a breath of fresh air to find someone like Sam Pink. He writes simply and clearly but in a way that only he could, because it comes from firsthand experience. His stories aren’t “content”; they’re lives lived.

The Apology by Christian TeBordo

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reviewed in the Chicago Reader

Is satire allowed anymore? We’re living through a period which largely demands literality from art. We want to know where the author stands. Unambiguously, with no shade or contradiction. Satire, on the other hand, lives in the gray and attempts to get at larger truths. Christian TeBordo’s new novel is set unreservedly outside the bipolarity that is the new normal. I hope you read it anyway.

Mike Long, aka Mike Rider, aka Knight Rider is sorry. After a catastrophic event occurs  while Mike is in high school, he and his father are forced to flee and start over. His life has not turned out anything like what he’d hoped for. He ends up becoming an office manager, though he considers himself, despite all external evidence to the contrary, a philosopher. When a new woman is hired at his office, his carefully controlled existence is upended and there appears to be no fixing it. But what did Mike actually do and why does he keep apologizing?

There are many more questions asked than answered in this nimble and at times, laugh-out-loud funny book. It begins with a perfect setup: everybody raves about April, the new woman in the payables department, but any time Mike tries to see her she’s elsewhere. This goes on for days, until he’s basically stalking her. He begins to suspect that it’s an elaborate prank, but then she appears, and she’s even more magnificent than what his officemates claim—think Christina Hendricks in Mad Men. 

Aside from April and his shameful past, what occupies Mike most is the passive-aggressive cold war with his work nemesis, Kit Carson, whom Mike insists on calling KC, though no one else does. They hate each other but can’t leave one another alone. Their banter is all barely disguised one-upmanship. April’s appearance kicks their conflict into turbo-drive. And she fans the flames expertly.

To write a comedic novel about inappropriate male behavior right now takes some intestinal fortitude. In less capable hands, the tricky, ambiguous tale TeBordo tells could’ve come out wrongheaded, reactionary, clumsy, or poorly conceived. But by making the nature of Mike’s past and present sins open for interpretation rather than established fact, the reader is forced to consider nuance and gray areas in ways we don’t very often these days. This is not to say that we’re necessarily meant to sympathize with Mike’s plight. He’s clearly not a straight arrow and bears much of the responsibility for the situation he finds himself in. But what is that situation exactly?

A scene near the middle of the book, where April finally appears to Mike, plays out like a Penthouse Forum fantasy. He thinks that his nemesis will be vanquished and he’ll get the girl of his dreams. But, of course, it doesn’t quite turn out that way. All along, Mike’s narration, as well as everyone else’s motives, are increasingly suspect. All their about-faces will give you whiplash, but it’s done in the service of ratcheting up the stakes. TeBordo sprinkles in references to René Descartes, the French philosopher who was concerned with how to prove something true beyond a shadow of doubt, throughout the book. Mike reveals about two-thirds of the way through, “I wrote my thesis on Descartes, and the reason I left that fact out was because Descartes is always getting me into trouble.” Had Descartes spent time in Mike’s office, he’d have run out screaming. It’s not a place with any solid ground.

So, if nobody’s who they appear to be and no one’s word counts for much, where does that leave us? As with much of his previous work, TeBordo juggles pop culture, philosophical inquiry, and deadpan humor in calibrated proportions to ensure that the narrative never drags. Why is Mike nicknamed after a cheesy 80s TV show featuring a talking car? Why is his nemesis named after an Old West frontiersman? Is Mike a stalker, a terrorist, or a victim of a sinister plot? Descartes would’ve been frustrated at the lack of definitive answers, but this reader, at least, was thoroughly entertained by the mess Mike and everyone around him are making. 

TeBordo runs the creative writing MFA program at Roosevelt University and has been honing a unique literary voice for the past 20 years. He balances serious philosophical inquiry with an absurdist bent, often making odd but hilarious marriages of pop and high culture references. He has published several short story collections and a couple novels through indie presses and can be called a writer’s writer (though no writer I know wants that label). For new readers, The Apology is a good place to start. Though obviously longer than some of his short stories, this novel is paradoxically less dense than some, and certainly a lot closer to a conventional narrative than many. That is not to say that it’s mindless comedy; TeBordo is far too cerebral to do that. But this is certainly the most accessible thing of his I’ve read.

The Apology is not a #MeToo book or an anti-#MeToo book. What I think TeBordo is asking of us is to wade into the murk rather than render righteous judgment. By never telling us exactly how culpable Mike is, TeBordo intentionally leaves room for interpretation. Perhaps Mike’s apology is insincere or he has nothing to be sorry for, but I seriously doubt that. Because who among us is truly blameless?

Meiselman: The Lean Years by Avner Landes

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reviewed in the Chicago Reader

Meiselman is put-upon. Everything and everyone in his world is bent on humiliating and belittling him, so he plots his revenge. His day is coming. Or so he thinks. And, to Meiselman, it is only his own thoughts that count. The hero of Avner Landes’s hilarious debut novel, Meiselman: The Lean Years (Tortoise Books), is an aggravating, ridiculous being. He’s no one you’d want to know, but he’s a lot of fun to laugh at. There are even moments when the odd reader might find some of Meiselman’s shenanigans familiar, but those moments are best not admitted to. Best to keep them to oneself, or learn to do the opposite. Because if there’s a chance to get things wrong, Meiselman inevitably will. It’s his superpower.

The story begins with a slight. A former classmate, now a noted New York author, is slated to speak at the suburban Chicago library where Meiselman is the number two. Shenkenberg, the writer, is rude to Meiselman on the phone when discussing the upcoming event, which sets the assistant librarian off on a saga of reclaiming what he believes to be his scorned honor and self-respect. Along the way, he manages to estrange his devoted wife, horrify friends and coworkers, and generally flub any chance at even the most minor triumph.

The book is told in third person, but is basically our hero’s inner monologue. Yes, he thinks of himself in the third person.

Why is Meiselman always following the rules of other men? Why does he see such behavior as a requirement for decent living? When does he get to establish the arbitrary rules other men must follow?

For a man who only truly values his own opinions and feelings, Meiselman is inordinately concerned with how others see him. Ethel, his boss at the library, has taken ill and left him in charge, but everything his coworkers do is interpreted as a challenge to his authority or an attempt to usurp his power. Meiselman sees an odd glance or stray gesture as points for or against him in the imaginary abacus that is his consciousness. He is a solipsist par excellence.

Meiselman is the butt of every joke and barely tolerated by those closest to him, but somehow, I couldn’t wait to see what he’d ruin next. By grounding him in a real time and place, Landes makes the story of a small man’s comeuppance compelling. The town of New Niles, just north of Chicago, is likely a stand-in for Landes’s hometown, Skokie, Illinois. Meiselman’s ancestral allegiance to the White Sox—demonstrated by ritual morning box score checking, as well as regular TV viewing—is in line with the traditions of many local communities, as they moved from the city to the suburbs. The White Sox are his father’s team from when he lived on the south side, so they become the son’s team in the northern suburbs.

Tradition, of the Orthodox Jewish variety, is a leitmotif of the novel, setting it apart from the average new release in the fiction section of your bookstore. But that is not to say that this story will only appeal to those who live by those particular beliefs. Because this is Meiselman, his version of piety mostly consists of constantly checking to make sure that others see how correct his behavior is, in or out of shul. If he has a true religious fervor, it may be in his faithful, desperate morning checking of Frank Thomas’s stats from the night before.

Despite their shared ethnicity, religious affiliation, and hometown, Meiselman is no stand-in for his creator. Unlike the thinly-veiled proxies in the books of Philip Roth or Saul Bellow (to whose work Landes’s might be compared), Landes’s hero couldn’t be him because Meiselman is completely oblivious to how he actually comes off to others. It’s not a self-portrait because no one has the necessary distance to see themselves in this way. With Roth, especially, no matter how horrible his hero’s behavior, the reader must identify with him and justify or forgive his transgressions in order to accept the premise of the action and not want to throw the book across the room in disgust. By rendering Meiselman at a remove, Landes allows us to laugh at him, while also tucking away the occasional life lesson for later pondering. In a rare moment of actual insight, Meiselman observes that a story that starts with humiliation must end in humiliation. He has it coming and he gets it, and no one is surprised except for the man himself.

Busking Blues: Recollections of a Chicago Street Musician & Squatter by Michele McDannold

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reviewed in the Chicago Reader

Westley Heine never dreamed of singing for change on the streets of Chicago but life sometimes offers only stark choices. Getting by as a musician, artist, or writer is uphill barefoot through snowdrifts on a good day. Add a recession, a relationship going sour, some substance abuse, and a generous helping of self-doubt and few would bet on a guy’s chances. Yet Heine perseveres. Grounded in street-level observation and faith in his muse, his story isn’t always pretty but rings that much more true for its rough edges.

Busking Blues opens in early 2010s Chicago as the Great Recession is in full swing. Heine leaves a longtime girlfriend after their volatile relationship becomes untenable and finds himself homeless and underemployed. Sporadic shifts at a supermarket situated on dividing line between the mostly demolished Cabrini Green housing projects and upscale Old Town aren’t enough to pay rent on his own place, so he decides to try his hand at playing music on the streets while squatting on friends’ couches. 

When I call Heine in LA—where he’s moved with his wife for a change of scenery and to escape the harsh Midwestern winters—we talk a lot about the line between fiction and memoir. Both Busking Blues and his 2021 chapbook, 12 Chicago Cabbies, tell stories that Heine experienced. The only changes or enhancements, according to Heine, are a few altered names; most other inaccuracies, he chalks up to the limits of memory. As a writer who’s never leaned much on imagination, Heine’s approach is familiar and welcome to me. There’s little the human mind could conjure to match the chaotic randomness of lived experience.

Heine is a heart-on-his-sleeve seeker. Taking lessons from veteran buskers, seasoned grocery store coworkers, and former professors seriously, his path towards life lived for art is a treacherous one but always tinged with beauty and hope. No matter the obstacles or reversals, he keeps saying yes to any opportunity that comes his way. Sometimes that means a few days cat-sitting for a friend with access to a shower and a comfortable bed; other times it’s a nebulous relationship with an older woman that rides the line between chaste friendship one day and being stalked by her the next. It all adds up to a crazy quilt of urban experiences that a self-described country boy from Wisconsin could scarcely have imagined.

The thing Heine keeps coming back to in our talk is how much of the things that happened to him were the result of chance, “As a person who has a pretty scientific worldview I found it unsettling during the busking period because I found myself living on luck, the chance encounters on the grid. To start thinking in terms fate, karma, superstition was troublesome to me.”

The starkest case of kismet comes toward the end of the book. I’d assumed it was poetic license, but Heine tells me otherwise, “I intended to win that nice guitar and then I did. This freaked me out and I started going off the deep end with mind over matter/ free will concepts. Then, I lost the guitar in the taxi. This really happened as well. Easy come easy go before it was returned to me by the driver. Should I have taken this to mean that everything is random and meaningless?”

In between relating anecdotes, Heine grapples with how to tell his story, “If you just say bleakly what happened is it art or reporting the news? Is journalism or documentary an art or is it not? If the work is pure fantasy does it do anyone any good in the real world? Does art have to have a moral? Or is it better to have some moral ambiguity?” 

While he may not have arrived at a definitive answer on how to present his experiences In his writing, I responded most to the parts of his book which present his life with little commentary or philosophizing. A problem for any writer plumbing everyday life for material is that there’s rarely a clear narrative arc. But a story needs a beginning, middle, and end so we must improvise or invent. Heine’s solution is a dream sequence that flashbacks much of the novel’s main points and adds a heaping dollop spiritual wondering. During our phone interview, he freely admits to making this part up. I wish he hadn’t. This tendency to make sense of or wrap up lived moments in a neat bow aren’t necessary when the anecdotes are strong and can resonate under their own power, without the addition of “morals” or “meanings”.

To my way of thinking, art works like a mirror pointed outward at the viewer. You take your life and that of those around you and tell it with whatever means at your disposal. Be it a pen, a guitar, or a brush. You watch and listen to your environment and put it into words, notes, and images and your audience will see themselves rather than the artist. When Westley Heine writes about singing blues at a CTA stop, working the deli counter at Jewel, or riding the Green Line to the West Side to sleep in his practice space, it’s a life and locales I recognize. There’s no need to explain or grasp for any larger lesson. But I also understand well the doubts that creep in at low moments, voices that whisper all your efforts are in vain. That’s a struggle that never goes away. Perhaps that’s the true subject of this vivid and engaging ramble through the Chicago of a decade ago. 

Bullies: A Friendship by Alex Abramovich

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reviewed in the Chicago Tribune

Alex Abramovich's Bullies—A Friendship begins as memoir but ends as witness testimony to an era in American history. When Abramovich stumbles upon an old Long Island, New York yearbook picture of his classmate Travis Latham it sends him on a journey all the way across the country to Oakland, California. Abramovich remembers Latham as the bully who beat him up throughout his school years but when they meet again as grown men, their history and that of the wider world to which they belong is much more complex and contrary than either could've imagined.

A reporter by trade, Abramovich decides to find out what has become of his tormentor. He tracks down Latham in Oakland and they begin a correspondence which eventually leads to a GQ article. Latham has established a motorcycle club called the East Bay Rats, whose penchant for violence and mayhem seems to jibe with Abramovich's childhood memories. But the longer the two men spend together the less cut and dry the story becomes. For a start, Latham's recollects their childhood quite differently. In his memory they were friends and he absorbed as many beatings as he gave.

When work dries up in New York, the author decides to move to Oakland and from there the story he tells widens to include that city's complicated history, a portrait of a motorcycle club, and an eyewitness account of the Occupy Oakland clashes. Members of the MC repeatedly refer to Abramovich's role as being “embedded”, as reporters are during wartime, and though he himself resists the characterization, it's hard not to come away with the impression that while he may not have gone native, he was certainly not a disinterested observer.

After an early motorcycle lesson which ends in his hand being shattered, it's clear Abramovich is not cut out to be a biker but the more he pals around with them, the more he realizes they have a lot in common. One way or another most come from broken homes looking for structure, family, and community. Oakland, with its undermanned police department, provides a perfect setting for them to act out their frustrations. The Rats are known for their themed fight nights in which amateurs beat each other bloody. One of the club's own brawlers, John Firpo, is a descendent of the heavyweight boxer immortalized in George Bellows' painting, Dempsey and Firpo, which he has tattooed on his torso. These men operate on the fringes of society but the dissatisfactions and traumas which lead them to this way of life are not an anomaly.

Abramovich traces motorcycle clubs like the Rats back to a 1947 Life magazine photo of a fat drunk on a vintage bike, slouched and two-fisting beers in the California town of Hollister. The picture turns out to be staged and the story of a motorcycle gang occupying and destroying the town misreported, but not unlike the way The Godfather became a role model for real mafiosi, the fat drinker on the bike became an archetype which generations of bikers followed. In this episode and others, the writer's skill at relating a personal story to a wider history is evident.

The last section of the book is devoted to Occupy Oakland. While it may not be immediately obvious what that movement has to do with the story of the writer and the motorcyclist, the links emerge with each passing page. Abramovich and Latham spend increasing amounts of time in and around the encampment; the former is drawn to it as a reporter and witness to a national expression of rage, while the latter is attracted to its chaos, as well as the potential to gather recruits for his club. They both witness the clashes as the last spasm of a city which is rapidly changing in ways which will eventually drive them both out. 

Bullies is the story of two men's journey to put the demons of their childhood to rest. Along the way it also manages to become a portrait of a city and a country locked in a struggle with some of those same demons. We can only hope that Oakland and America come out of that fight more or less in one piece the way Latham and Abramovich have.