MAY 2, 2018
A FEW DAYS before I started writing this essay I received an email alert that goes out whenever a crime is committed on one of the campuses of the university at which I teach:
On March 18, 2018, at 3 PM on the Northeast corner of Jackson and State three unknown males approached one unknown male and displayed a handgun. They stated to the victim “You are lucky there is a camera here.” The offenders then fled in an unknown direction.
I think about violence a lot. Reading this alert, I cycled through stages: first, skepticism about the strangely formal diction — had the would-be shooters really used the formal “you are”? Did they really speak in unison (“they stated”), like a Greek chorus? Then, recognition — the mise-en-scène seemed plucked from one of Dick Wolf’s ubiquitous Chicago procedurals (Justice, Fire, PD, et cetera). Finally, synthesis: the victim had used, or was presented as having used, heightened language to talk about a mugging that had almost taken place on a busy street in downtown Chicago because the experience had been filtered through the mythology of violence in Chicago.
That mythology can be traced back at least to Capone, but what is the reality? Some statistics show that the murder rate per capita is lower here than in New Orleans, St. Louis, Baltimore. Nonetheless, the amount of violence is a political talking point, especially violence within the black community and against black teenagers by white cops.
To me, violence is a defining feature of the city, like the freeways are to Los Angeles. Chicago and violence — it’s like white on rice, as a friend of mine who no longer lives here used to say. He was a Chicagoan, the first and only one I have ever loved. I never understood him. I never found a single book that explained the violence, although there are a number of books that approach the city and its violent past and present from different angles. You could say this is a “city of books about violence” the way you could say it is a “city of neighborhoods.”
In the brawling 19th- and 20th-century novel sub-category, there is Theodore Dreiser’s beautiful Sister Carrie, Saul Bellow’s Augie March and Humboldt’s Gift, Richard Wright’s Native Son, and all of Nelson Algren. In the micro-history category, there is Mitchell Duneier’s Slim’s Table, a micro study of a group of black men on the South Side, and Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, about two kids in the Henry Horner Homes, a housing project on the West Side. One thing all these books have in common is that they are largely about men committing violence.
My friend was shot in a home invasion, trying to protect me. He’s fine now. We never found the shooter. I am breathing more rapidly as I write these words.
Three years or so after that, when I was a senior in college, I worked on a production of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia. Now, that is a play about violence. In part one, Clytemnestra and her lover murder Agamemnon, after he comes home from war. In part two, Agamemnon’s son murders Clytemnestra. Then, in part three, the jury system is created, the idea being that a vast social upheaval had to happen to prevent any more bloodshed from destroying Athens.
It was someone’s idea to do outreach with the play into the already failing public schools in the desolate neighborhoods surrounding Hyde Park, where we would talk about it to kids. I suppose now we would be assailed for our white privilege, but that phrase was far in the future. I remember carrying a 3D Styrofoam model of the set into those classrooms, talking to students not all that much younger than I was about the violence in the play. I remember the peeling paint on the walls and I remember the students’ eyes, which were not indifferent to the story we were telling. I remember, even then, the weight of the fatigue, and I remember wondering how to measure the cost of violence.
David Mamet — who, like my friend, no longer lives here — might be moved by The Oresteia. He works in the tradition of the all-male chroniclers of male violence in 20th-century Chicago. Although he has also written plays, fiction, and essays set in many other places, like Dreiser, Bellow, and Algren, he will always be associated with Chicago. His brilliant 1975 play American Buffalo introduced the world to a new kind of violent-speak, which the critic Roger Ebert called “staccato gutter dialect.” My favorite Mamet film, set in an unnamed city reminiscent of Chicago, is Homicide (1991), an existential thriller starring Joe Mantegna as a Jewish cop in search of himself. Rewatching Homicide gave me insight into Mamet’s messy new book, Chicago. The only violence that interests him is the kind overwhelming men who try to forget themselves.
I was prepared to dislike Chicago, but then, a few weeks ago, I saw Mamet in conversation with the Chicago Tribune’s theater critic Chris Jones at the Harris Theater downtown, not that far from Jackson and State. Mamet, now 70, shorter than I thought he would be, walked onto the stage and began to reminisce about his boyhood trips to the Harris Theater, about taking piano lessons and cutting school to see Ingmar Bergman films. He said the word “Chicago,” and men and women applauded the native son.
Chicago is a strange book, half noir, half romance. Set in the Jazz Age, it includes many detailed descriptions of Tommy guns, but the best part (no one asked about this at the Harris) is Mamet’s portrayal of the love story between an Irish girl, Annie Walsh, and Mike, a reporter and aspiring novelist. Annie is mostly seen through Mike’s eyes, but there is a surprising amount of tenderness hidden in the hard-boiled speech and the gunfire: “In their talks at the florists, Mike sat on the high stool and smoked cigarettes. Annie was dressed in a green work smock, which he thought was the most graceful garment he had ever seen.”
Spoiler alert. Annie dies, and the book falls apart. But there is something compelling about Chicago, echoing the plaintive Homicide; in both cases, the hero could be transformed by a woman, except that life refuses to allow him to be. Both works are eulogies for men trapped in hopeless situations, as opposed to celebrations of machismo. Perhaps Mamet’s consideration for his tough guys is why he gives them heightened speech, as he does here:
“No, I shall never kiss and tell,” Parlow said. “But you, I know, are yourself not unacquainted with the Biological Imperative.”
“Oh, my,” Mike said. “I have offended you.”
On stage at the Harris, Mamet spoke regular English, with great comic timing, if you could ignore set pieces like, “No one knows less about life than an English teacher” (says the person who was by his own admission beloved by his teachers for reasons he could not understand), or his claim that he never does research (when someone clearly has done plenty for this book). I did like Mamet’s jokes and quips, even the somewhat stale ones:
Q. What did Archimedes say to his critics?
A: Fulcrum if they can’t take a joke.
The journalist Ben Austen engages with the reality of Chicago violence far more seriously in his High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing, about a dismantled housing project. In his work, violence emerges as the cost of poverty. Just as I had been prepared to dislike Chicago, I was prepared to dislike High-Risers. It belongs to a genre of Chicago nonfiction that is supposed to be more of a bomb than a book, aiming not merely to inform readers about a problem, but to shove justice along. High-Risers’s first antecedent was probably Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906). But this irritates me. I find the book smacks a little of do-gooderism, Hull House between two covers.
Maybe it’s unfair to dislike Austen for what I consider to be a generic problem. High-Risers is meticulously researched and, overall, very well told. It is the depressing story of how Cabrini-Green, a high-rise project built in the postwar era on Chicago’s near North Side to house the working poor, was turned into a slum through political neglect, greed, bad planning, and indifference. It was eventually razed, and the neighborhood has since been gentrified.
Austen humanizes Cabrini-Green with lively portraits of people who lived there, including the working poor and gang members. He toils to present balanced views of men and women. But it’s hard to appreciate the positives against the backdrop of the colossal waste and extortion that doomed the projects. Many moments inspire outrage, like the carnivalesque episode in 1981 when Mayor Jane Byrne moves in to Cabrini-Green for two weeks to improve her standing with black voters. (That stunt was recently repeated by Governor Bruce Rauner, who moved into veterans housing downstate after several vets there got Legionnaires’ disease.)
Austen is also good at excoriating the media for its lame reporting on the project. There is, for example, his account of the battle between black actors and white studio execs who thought that white audiences would not accept certain elements of Norman Lear’s 1980s show Good Times. The white execs won out, and thus the show became more a caricature of a black family than it was intended to be. Maybe the most effective moment in the book is the story of the 1992 horror movie Candyman, which is set in Cabrini-Green. Austen quotes Bernard Rose, the film’s British director: “the fear around Cabrini was irrational.” To Austen, Candyman makes perfect sense: “What else could possibly account for the squalor and isolation and violence in which they live? A societal plot against black people?” He describes a scene at the end of the movie in which the heroine, a white graduate student named Helen researching the urban myth of the Candyman, gets attacked by three men from the project. To Austen, this moment captures the contagious “casualness and banality of violence.” Cabrini-Green is a fact, but it is also a virus, and Chicago has caught it.
Like much literature about Chicago violence, these two books are written by men. In contrast, Showtime’s The Chi, the latest TV show to promise to tell the truth about Chicago, is created by a woman, the beloved actress Lena Waithe. I wish I could say that I thought the show advances the conversation about the city and violence. It has garnered acclaim and Waithe has been called a “game changer” because she shows life on the South Side from the perspective of the black community. But it’s hard to see the Chicago in The Chi. All of the establishing shots of the El and the Sears Tower fail to bring the city into focus. I flinched at the cliché portrayal of the two corrupt white cops — the only white characters in the show, as several critics have pointed out — but that wasn’t what bothered me in the end. What bothered me was that the show’s plotting is entirely predictable, and that all the characters, but especially the women, are flat.
Mamet’s, Austen’s, and Waithe’s portrayals all suffer from the same weakness: they fail to show people’s interior lives. Perhaps this is because the novel, the nonfiction, and the show are all procedurals. Like Chicago’s armpits (six-limbed intersections), these works offer too many killers, too many victims, too many stories, too many voices. Where’s a Chicagoan to look for the real deal?
Three years ago, the Brooklyn-based literary journal A Public Space devoted a section of an issue to excerpts from out-of-print novels and essays by Bette Howland, who died last year. After early success, Howland, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner and friend, protégé, and lover of Saul Bellow, essentially disappeared from view. Although she was a Chicagoan, it was not a home for her. As in the case of another Chicago artist, the reclusive photographer Vivian Maier, Howland’s biggest success has come after her death.
Howland’s Blue in Chicago is a Bellovian novel from 1978. The narrator, a white graduate student and writer, opens with an observation about the violence in Hyde Park and moves on to a granular description of the gripes and disappointments of her working-class Jewish relatives, whom she’s going to visit in Uptown, a neighborhood on the far north side about an hour and a half away. “I was holding my breath, but the name was not one I knew,” the narrator says after listening to a radio report about a graduate student who has been shot and killed. She endures a long car ride with her family, during which she begins to move back and forth from her childhood to the present. Always somewhere in her mind is what’s going on out on the street. “I’ve got to stop reacting to people according to color,” she writes. “This is what has been happening to me; happening to everyone I know.” She has read Native Son and finds it wanting in its analysis of racism.
More than any procedural, Blue in Chicago shows how violence affects the narrator: “we are a passive population under siege […] [o]ur fear is becoming socialized […] people are afraid to go out after dark […] [i]t is just an island surrounded by the defoliation of the slums […] [a]nd yet none of these are real motivations for leaving.”
At the end of the excerpt in A Public Space, the narrator has a revelation: “The fact is that most people have come to Hyde Park in the first place just because of the things it did not have. (It doesn’t have relatives, for instance.)” She returns from the North Side blue about her discovery that she is drawn to it. Thus the book’s title.
It is coming up on the 35th anniversary of the shooting of which my friend and I were victims in this city, and I still think about that night often. If I close my eyes, I can see many details. The action moves forward like a grainy silent film. I can pause or rewind. There are certain things I see. I don’t feel angry about it anymore. In fact, sometimes I tell people the story to shut them up. But that crime for me defines Chicago and always will.
And I want to know: What am I supposed to do about it? Protest? Mourn?