This anthology of stories is not something I would ordinarily read these days, though it might have been something I would have picked up decades ago when I was reading my way through the fiction stacks at the Chicago Public Library: whatever looked interesting, serendipity starting with “A” and working upward toward “Z”. Yes, I made it through the alphabet twice, but I don’t remember a word of it.
I ran across this book because, for the past several years, I’ve been paying occasional visits to the author’s blog site, Pete Lit. The thought of a literary liberal one or two towns over from my reactionary Lawrence Welk childhood home was amusing, and his posts, mostly to do with what he was reading or quotes therefrom, were interesting though they mostly did not tempt me to follow his bibliography. Then came his announcement of his latest book… and it’s available for free.
The “marshland” in the title is, of course, Chicago, a fitting homage to the swamp that preceded the city and to its name, variously translated from the Miami as “wild onion” or “skunk cabbage”. Each of the dozen or so stories is subtitled with the particular Chicago neighborhood in which the story is set; the book title is thus sweetly apt. This is both really nice and more than a bit risky, what with the current obsessions with authenticity and appropriation, not to mention a vulnerability to nit-pickers on geography and names and the like.
Does Anderson navigate these hazards successfully? Not exactly, I think. As literary fiction, these stories are not obliged to be dramas. Often nothing much happens; instead the narrative serves as a vehicle for sketching a character (who may or may not undergo some transformation, great or small) or as social commentary or as a platform for virtuoso word-smithing. Speaking of which, I do have one small grievance regarding Anderson’s writing. Trains do not “chug” — for over fifty years they haven’t. Since the author is a regular METRA commuter into Chicago, he really ought to know better. Nit picking, begging your pardon, but still!
The characters are often nicely drawn, but something, je ne sais quoi, is lacking. This leaves some of them inhabiting a sort of literary uncanny valley. I suspect this is more noticeable given the nature of the story-telling, and I don’t mean to make too much of it as I’ve seen really well-known authors land in the same place.
The character that sticks with me the most is Mario, from “Prime Time,” mostly because I could hear, in my mind, Tom Waits’ song “Romeo Is Bleeding.” Mario is at a point in his life where he could become someone much like Waits’ Romeo, and it’s a hair cut that decides the matter.
Two of the stories had particular interest for me. “Constant Volume” takes place in Rogers Park, a neighborhood where I’ve lived for over the past third of a century. The protagonist, George Borowski, is a resident building superintendent of vaguely liberal political persuasion. He has fallen from being a fleet automobile mechanic to his precarious employment, from having a second floor apartment with a view to an unimproved basement “garden” apartment, from having a girl friend to being alone with a TV. The antagonist is Denny Palmer, a conservative Loyola University student resident in the building. I wonder about the name choice there: Palmer as in Chicago’s old aristocracy vs. the ethnics? This is a commentary story. I do have one nit to pick: Sheridan Park is not in Rogers Park but somewhere on the west side. Anderson certainly knows this and I wonder if this was a misdirection toward disguising an individual Anderson knows.
“Sous” takes place in Armour Square. I lived in that “neighborhood” for about three years. Armour Square was not actually in any way a single neighborhood back in the 1970s, despite what city maps might say. It was, at minimum, a half dozen rather different neighborhoods (I lived in two of them), some of which did not tolerate other parts of Armour Square, never mind most of the rest of Chicago. While I lived there, had you asked, I would have drawn the northern border at 26th Street, so it was interesting that Anderson’s protagonist is from Chinatown, the neighborhood’s actual northern territory. It’s a character study, wherein the protagonist affirms his values. Only Chinatown from Armour Square is represented in the story, but I had a backyard garden back then, too.
Do I recommend this book? Yes, though take this with caution because, once again, it’s not my usual reading material; I’m not a literary critic and I don’t have literary critic standards. Am I thus pounding a irregular polygon peg into a square hole? Regardless, I didn’t feel as though my reading time was wasted and I felt other folks ought to hear about the book. And so you have.