As a young man making his way in 20th-century Chicago, the unnamed protagonist of Brian Doyle’s Chicago resembles Saul Bellow’s Augie March and James T. Farrell’s Danny O’Neill. But there are critical differences in these books, most notably in their heroes’ relationship to the city of Chicago, which is as significant a character in all three stories as any person within.
Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and Farrell’s A World I Never Made are essentially immigrant novels, describing central characters defined, at least in part, by their ethnic extraction. Danny O’Neill’s character arc in particular chronicles his efforts to leave behind the illiterate, constrictively Catholic Irish-American ghetto of his parents’ and grandparents’ South Side, a path defiantly but uneasily traveled by Farrell himself. But Doyle’s narrator in Chicago, though an entry-level staffer at a Chicago-based Catholic magazine, is neither a Chicago native nor an immigrant (unlike Augie March and Danny O’Neill, who are culturally both). He’s a well-educated, deracinated Irish-American who’s moved to Chicago to take a job.
In another sense, Doyle’s Chicago resembles Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie—itself as much an elaborate treatise on the emerging character of a city as the story of a set of characters and a book in which everyone is an immigrant. As its title suggests, Chicago’s foremost subject is the city itself, and the book is very much a paean to Chicago as the author found it when he arrived in 1978 to begin his career as a journalist.
Doyle’s Chicago is a captivating nebula of neighborhood worlds-unto-themselves, pulsing South Side jazz and blues clubs, crosstown bus-driver bards and world-class gyro and empanadas stands. His narrator’s 15-month stopover in the city coincides with the 1979 baseball season, the one time in half a century when the White Sox had the best outfield in the major leagues.
Doyle doesn’t tell readers much about the unnamed narrator of the story, except for a few details that probably approximate the author himself at the time: a recent graduate of Notre Dame, he’s naïve, energetic and eager to get a foothold in journalism. Unlike Rinker Buck’s memoir First Job, Chicago devotes a relatively small amount of ink to the narrator’s on-the-job experiences, although the Catholic magazine’s hard-shelled editors get a few teachable moments to rival Buck’s wise and laconic Berkshire Eagle taskmasters. Chicago’s narrator is happiest when he’s playing basketball, and he spends much of his spare time dribbling a ball up and down the Lake Michigan shore, running off energy and contemplating the oceanic enormity of the lake. He also talks his way into intense pickup games involving two rival Chicago gangs.
Chicago is never presented as a memoir per se, but it certainly feels that way when the narrator draws attention to the years between the tale and the telling, reflecting on Chicago and his time there “when [he] was a young man.”
At the heart of the story is a charming array of characters found in the narrator’s apartment building. The most significant are Mr. Pawlowsky, a sagacious handyman with a passion for Abe Lincoln’s anthologized speeches, and Edward, Mr. Pawlowsky’s even wiser dog, also a Lincoln aficionado, whom the narrator describes as “an illuminated being.” Though Edward isn’t magically anthropomorphized as he might be in a children’s book, he does demonstrate a remarkable ability to carry things that his size and lack of opposable thumbs would seem to preclude. Though he has no dialogue, he seems to have little difficulty conveying his timely advice and profound insights. There’s something comically delightful about the way Doyle portrays Edward, maintaining the mystery of how the dog knows what he knows and communicates it.
At the heart of the book is a wonderful scene in which Mr Pawlowsky describes how Chicago became the city it is, with Sister Carrie-esque grandiosity and sweep. “Sometimes Mr Pawlowsky had a tendency to soar a bit, when he was in full oratorical mode,” the narrator notes, “and Edward had taught me how to arrest the flight with a direct question.” The narrator poses four concise questions on what Chicago is all about and what distinguishes it from other cities, and Mr. Pawlowsky responds, in part, that it “rises from the plains like Oz, glowing with light and fire at night, drawing people to it from around the world. A roaring city, gunfire and applause and thunder… A city of burning energies on the shore of a huge northern sea. An American city, with all the violence and humor and grace and greed of this particular powerful adolescent country.”
Doyle’s Chicago is a determinedly quiet book about a noisy city that sketches a vast cityscape but deals narratively in miniatures, concerned mostly with the residents of a single building. It chronicles few dramatic changes in their lives between the narrator’s arrival and predestined departure from a city in which he spent a short time in a long life. One gets the impression that Doyle, an award-winning journalist, editor and author of multiple novels, has wanted to write this book for a long time. It’s to his credit that he didn’t let his immense feeling for Chicago and the brief time he lived there induce him to make this modest and winsome story bigger than it is.