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Review: Chicago, by David Mamet
HarperCollins, 2018. 338 pp. $27

“A romantic is just a cynic for whom, as yet, the nickel hasn’t dropped,” says one character to another. Both are newsmen from Chicago’s leading paper, philosophical drunks, and they may be excused their pessimism, for it’s 1925, when underworld gangs struggle for control of the city, and life seems cheap. But these facts are incidental, for this is Mamet land, where corruption pervades every interaction like poison, and the only question is who will succumb next.

The more interesting drunk in this peripatetic, loosely connected novel is Mike Hodge, decorated war veteran, who falls in love, hard, with Annie Walsh. But a thug kills her at Mike’s apartment, for no reason he can figure, and when he’s drunk enough of his visceral grief away, he sets out to find the killer.

Before that happens, however, a lot of hooch flows under the bridge. Though I salute Mamet for letting his protagonist mourn, when so many mysteries take bereavement for granted and have the sleuth pounding the pavement right away, Chicago errs in the other direction. So many conversations take place between Mike and his cynical friends, chiefly his newsroom buddy, Parlow, and an African-American whorehouse madam, Peekaboo, that when they tell him they’ve heard enough about “the Irish girl,” you want to agree. The sleuthing doesn’t start until around page 150, and doesn’t really get going until much later. On their own, many of these scenes work beautifully, especially with Peekaboo, whose take on life and manner of expressing it make her a compelling character. Why, she asks rhetorically, do you think girls fall in love? Her answer is that the man can (choose one or more): “bring me off; buy me shit; protect me and my children; leave me a lot of money.” On hearing this, Mike chuckles dismissively.

But if you didn’t know that Mamet is a playwright, you’d quickly wonder why there’s so much talk, and why every sentence seems to have at least one word in italics, as if the author were giving his players line readings. The staginess doesn’t end there, either, because the narrative has plenty of closeted two- or -threesomes and very few panoramas. Surprisingly, Annie herself appears very little and has no dialogue, except reported as indirect discourse, and even her name seldom occurs: She’s the “Irish girl.” Is she meant to be merely an abstraction? A sex object? It’s a little strange. And do reporters of the city beat really use words like etiolated or debate whether a certain aphorism comes from Tacitus? Maybe these reporters do, since they seem preternaturally attuned and can intuit that someone they’ve just set eyes on carries a shameful secret, and what it must be.

That said, Chicago has its pleasures beyond the rich, colloquial dialogue. Mike’s detective work, once he throws himself into it, is clever, persistent, and courageous. The mystery offers plenty of twists despite having few moving parts. Mamet has a keen sense of the underworld, its codes, gestures, and ways of operation. And though he doesn’t reveal the Tribune newsroom in full — it seems a fairly quiet place, with little furniture, population, or obstacles to private, uninterrupted conversation — he knows old-time newsmen:

Crouch was the city editor, and, like most men dedicated to a cause, he took seriously the signs and trappings of his devotion. These, in his case, were an ancient rumpled suit, a green eyeshade while at work, a Fatima cigarette perennially held between his lips, his eyes screwed up against the smoke, nicotine-stained fingers and teeth, a dirty shirt, and frayed and inkstained cuffs. He was small, usually unshaven, and had looked every day of his fifty-eight years since his accession to the desk in 1913.

But, in the end, Chicago doesn’t hang together as a novel, and I don’t think it would make much of a play, either. I’d hoped for better from a writer I admire.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this post was published in shorter, different form.