NOVEMBER 27, 2015
IN THE OPENING PAGES of Mighty, Mighty, actor/author Wally Rudolph prefaces his paean to the ragged streets of late-1990s Chicago by quoting poet Roger Reeves: “Violence is the American version of love.” As V-Lin in FX’s popular biker gang series Sons of Anarchy, Rudolph has successfully endeared himself to fans of the show by personifying some of the darker nuances of Reeves’s statement. In Mighty, Mighty, however, Rudolph shakes off this Harleyed Hollywood persona for an author’s focus on the dented chrome of Reeve’s words — the smudged veneer of those all-too-human qualities that lead the characters in this novel through despair, corruption, and yes, even hope, on the wintry streets and alleys of the Windy City.
While Reeves’s quote may very well point to the very worst that chills deep into the hearts of the men and women in this novel, Rudolph recasts this phrase into a much more hopeful mantra, well aware of the dangers that can result from the semiotic ménage à trois between the words “violence,” “America,” and “love.” By formulating his own set of alliterated signifiers — Regret, Repent, and Redemption — Rudolph counters this pessimism in readers, inscribing the essence of this newer phrase onto the skin of our itchy fingertips, urging us onto each subsequent page. Unless readers choose to study Jarrod Taylor’s amazing cover, however, they will remain unaware of the existence of this phrase until the significance of these words is explained at the end of the novel. Of course, this is Rudolph’s intention all along in Mighty, Mighty: to buzz into the skin of our minds with the tiny pinpricks of his gritty prose, subdue us with his anthems to the universality of pain, then watch us hold up mirrors to our faces as we wait for the glorious ink to dry.
Beyond epigraphs and symbolisms culled from the streets of contemporary America, however, it is the characters in Rudolph’s existential stew that will gut-punch readers unawares and have them begging for more. The past haunts the (for the most part) believable cast of antiheros throughout the novel, making for a complicated network of backstories and relationships. Like a fine tattoo artist blending blood and ink, Rudolph engraves portraits of complicated individuals onto the rough skin of Mighty, Mighty with no antiseptic — only the recalcitrant images of real people in pain.
The novel opens with the guilt-ridden memories of retired Chicago Police detective Norman Quinn as he arrives late to mass at Saint Patrick’s Church. While the sense is that retirement has Norman restless, it quickly becomes evident that the real culprit is Georgie, his drug-addicted son, and his son’s numerous break-ins to Norman’s own home for money and jewelry to support his habit. Through Georgie, Rudolph exposes Norman to himself, fitting the former decorated Chicago detective with an albatross of a son who exhibits the same criminal behavior as the drug dealers, pimps, and gang members Norman once tortured and imprisoned. In this embattled father-son relationship, Rudolph implies that corruption — parental and institutional — begets individuals of the same ilk, placing parents such as Norman on the precipice of his own emotions, forcing him to ask himself beneath each well-crafted line in Mighty, Mighty: where did I go wrong with Georgie, and what can I do to make things right with him? For Norman, Georgie is the guilty fulcrum around which he revolves in perpetuity in these pages, stuck in a torturous, oval orbit that distances him, then returns him, to the realities of his failures as a father and human being. These emotions are cryptically imprinted into Norman’s favorite phrase in the novel: “Chicago problems, Chicago solutions.” Through Norman and his ex-partners Paul and Terry, Rudolph explores the systemic nature of parental and police corruption in big cities, the latter recalling contemporary allegations of abuses of police power in other large cities in America, such as Ferguson or Baltimore.
But Norman, his criminal son, and his crooked partners make up only half the characters of consequence in Mighty, Mighty. The novel’s episodic structure introduces other protagonists, such as the dysfunctional family unit of Pap and his granddaughters, Stefy and Amanda. Stefy is the tough one, a budding tattoo artist who keeps her distance from what remains of her family. Amanda stays at home with Pap, a World War II veteran slowly succumbing to the throes of cancer yet sharp enough to call out Amanda for constantly bumming his Parliaments or stealing his Oxycodone pills. Pap and Amanda enable each other in their cold, downtown apartment until Pap’s death — when the sisters are forced to confront their respective resentments and personal demons. Wisely, Rudolph resists the urge of a Kumbaya resolution and opts instead for a more perilous tension, only hinting at reconciliation between Stefy and Amanda through explorations of their failures, dreams, and desires. In the vast cosmos of these two sisters in especial, Rudolph muscles Carl Sagan’s famous statement from the heavens and recasts it for readers thus: “We are all the stuff of scars.”
If I were pressed to identify the heart of Mighty, Mighty, I would be compelled to point to Amanda. More than any other character, hers is the arc that is irresistible in this novel, forged by Rudolph in addiction, abuse, and desperation, yet punch-drunk in hope. As Pap’s caretaker, Amanda’s outward sentimentality is constantly at odds with Stefy’s stubborn denial of filial obligations. Hers is also the tragedy that binds the novel together. Her brutal rape at the hands of Georgie spurs her new lover, the tough drifter named Chance, to beat her ex-boyfriend to death. The novel climaxes here, coagulating the disparate episodic threads and then unraveling at a kinetic pace.
Georgie’s brutal demise at the hands of Chance catalyzes his father one final time and serves to grant Norman the death wish he’s desired from the very start of Mighty, Mighty. Thrust back out onto the familiar Chicago back alleys in search of his son’s killer, Norman’s path develops into so much more than a trauma-induced search for justice. For Norman, his journey is for himself in all of the ways he let Georgie down.
All roads in Mighty, Mighty — including Norman’s — lead through the quixotic Lee Verbosa, the charming yet enigmatic owner of Ghost Town, the tattoo parlor where Stefy works. At the very least, that is what it seems Rudolph expects readers to believe. For me, however, Lee’s quick switch from violent criminal to altruistic father figure undermines the much more complicated redemption arcs of the other protagonists. Lee’s past includes the murder of Cupid Calloway, a founding member of the Almighty Vice Lords, along with yearly sums of money paid to Norman for helping cover up the crime. While this critical piece of information is not revealed until late in the novel, not even Lee’s interactions with Stefy, Amanda, or Chance — nor his penchant for doling out free tattoos at Ghost Town, nor his secret monetary aid to Eddie, Calloway’s nephew — serve to reveal Lee as the man Rudolph wants us to appreciate. Lee staggers too convincingly from criminality to charity, and it is not until the end of Mighty, Mighty that Rudolph redeems this lapse in character development through the explanation of Lee’s signature tattoo and its significance to all those wearing it on their skin:
A blurred and faded mighty dagger tattoo sat on the inside of Eddie’s right forearm. At a loss, Stefy shook her head as she looked closely at the faces of the arriving men who were surrounding Lee’s coffin. At once, she recognized them all — even Eddie. When they first came into the shop, they were younger, angrier, ashamed to show their faces, but now all of them were old, some happy. She saw Lee in all of their hardened faces and soft eyes. Stefy ran her hand around the faint but still visible R’s across the hilt of Eddie’s dagger.
“Regret. Repent. Redemption — that’s what we live by. Your friend, Lee, didn’t start as a good man,” said Eddie. “But he ended his life loved by many who’ve been inside. You girls were his family, his everything.”
A masterful sophomore effort (following the success of Rudolph’s Four Corners), Mighty, Mighty is a love story of human detritus in concrete jungles, intricately inked into a scarred, yet majestic tattoo. Fans of Barry Hannah, Daniel Woodrell, Denis Johnson, and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez will find it hard to put this novel down.