Last week there was a very enthusiastic response to my latest selection, Summer Reads 2016 – thank you for reading and sharing it far and wide, something I know is also greatly appreciated by the authors. Now for the next fun bit – hosting some of them here on the Literary Sofa. No book makes that list unless I think it’s really good, but I must confess to a major soft spot for the debut by today’s Writer on Location, Douglas Cowie. To say that Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago – a fictionalized account of the love affair between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren – is my kind of thing would be an understatement. (More of that below in a review which makes no great claim to objectivity.)
The title leaves no doubt as to the locations but since I’m the one who does Paris around here, Douglas joins me for a nostalgic return to his home city of Chicago, which I loved when I spent a few days there many years ago.
Walk east down Madison Street from the Ogilvie Center, which until 1997 was just called North Western Station. After less than a block you’ll cross the Chicago River, Civic Opera ahead to your left. You’re in a tunnel or valley of skyscrapers, so look up. Even though these aren’t the big ones, this close they’re tall enough to block the view of Willis Tower, which used to be called Sears Tower, a couple of blocks away on Adams. At Wells Street you’ll cross under the elevated train tracks that run down Wells to Van Buren, along Van Buren to Wabash, up Wabash to Lake Street, and back around. In his 1992 novel Cooler by the Lake, Larry Heinemann introduces these and many more Chicago streets by telling you what each was named for.
All of the lines of the CTA run this circle, which gives the downtown business district its name: the Loop. The train line is known as the El, short for elevated, and it’s also called the “L”, which I’ve always found annoying. As you’re walking, look ahead: there’s light at the end of this valley, and though the buildings press down on you as they tower up, you’ll feel the space gradually opening as you walk toward that light. At Michigan Avenue, the buildings give way and the sky opens up. Across the street is the Art Institute, surrounded by parks, and beyond the parks, Lake Shore Drive, and beyond that, Lake Michigan, whose water stretches southward along the shore to the steel mills at Gary, Indiana, and eastward to the horizon, with Michigan somewhere beyond view on the other side.
I don’t know how many times I’ve made that walk. I was born and mostly grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago, and took the train that runs from Geneva to Chicago (now it runs two stops further west, to La Fox and Elburn), getting on at College Avenue or Glen Ellyn for school trips and family trips, and mostly with friends to spend the day in Chicago doing something close to nothing: we’d wander up and down Michigan Avenue, go to the beach in the summer, visit book stores, record stores, the Art Institute.
Year round during my teenage years we’d drive downtown Friday or Saturday nights to go to all ages rock shows at the Metro, Riviera, Vic, or Aragon Ballroom (where my friend Dan’s dad went to his high school prom thirty years before we went there to see Smashing Pumpkins), exiting the Eisenhower just before it turns into Congress Parkway to slip through downtown on Lower Wacker Drive, always trying to pull off a lane-changing manouever we called the Triple Bittner, which I don’t have space to explain here. Eight Sundays each football season I spent driving down to Soldier’s Field with my dad to go to Bears games.
But most ingrained in my suburban kid Chicago imagination are the summer weekdays when we didn’t have to work, and my friends and I would take the train downtown to swim. We’d leave North Western Station and walk around Chicago wearing sandals, t-shirts and the shorts from our school gym uniforms, which must’ve looked pretty stupid, but they dried out quickly and there’d be no need to change. The beach on Northerly Island, which is actually a peninsula, and was home to the 1933-1934 Century of Progress World’s Fair, was my favorite. It’s tucked away just south of the Adler Planetarium, and there was rarely anybody else there, except a bored lifeguard in a rowboat.
Meigs Field, a tiny airport for small airplanes, was also on Northerly Island, and while we swam, Cessnas and Pipers and whatever other private planes would buzz overhead, landing and taking off, delivering, I imagined, business jerks to their business appointments. Suckers—we were swimming on a summer day. I didn’t know it at the time, but I shared this general attitude with Studs Lonigan, eponymous protagonist of James T. Farrell’s trilogy of novels (1932, 1934, 1935). In 2003 Meigs Field was illegally bulldozed in the middle of the night on the orders of Mayor Richard M. Daley (son of Mayor Richard J. Daley), in order to expand the mayor’s park plans; this is how progress gets made in Chicago.
I left Chicago in 1996. I have lived more than half of my life away from it, and only occasionally manage to visit. Although it’s still the place I think of as home, it’s a home that I inhabit and imagine through the news stories, gossip and sports teams I follow, and through the novels and poems I read, and the memories that I have and reinvent, the places on maps and in photographs, their changing names and geography, their changing textures in my mind.
Thanks to Douglas for guiding us around the streets and vistas of Chicago, giving such a physical sense of the city as well as the atmospheric re-living of his teenage years.
It is rare for a book I’ve never heard of to turn up holding quite so much promise for me. I love France, I love the States, I’m interested in feminism and philosophy and the writing life (did you guess?). Naturally this can go either way, not to mention that Simone de Beauvoir’s exhaustive chronicling of her own life makes any attempt to fictionalize it an ambitious, if not audacious, proposition. Unlike the author, I am no expert on Beauvoir (or American writer Algren) – nor does any reader have to be – but for me it really worked. The ambience of both Paris and Chicago was captured with authenticity, and as someone who’s written a novel about love against the odds, I admired Douglas Cowie’s sensitive and insightful characterization, in which he resists romanticizing these two complex and extraordinary people. The result is an engaging and poignant read. And to top it all, I absolutely love the title and the cover!
I wouldn’t normally tack on another book, but it would be wrong not to mention this recent work of historical biography/philosophy which details the lives of Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus and many more (I now know a lot about Heidegger) – the Café de Flore set who inspired a million jokes about Gauloises and black polo necks. I must confess I thought this might be hard work; instead it is a highly engaging, entertaining, accessible and profound work from someone who clearly knows their stuff inside out but has a gift for making it live for the non-specialist. Discovering this and Noon in Paris … in quick succession made for one of the most deliciously enjoyable reading experiences in a long time.
Next week’s guest will be Avril Joy, author of Sometimes a River Song, sharing her experiences of setting a novel in a place she has never visited – rural Arkansas, where her story is set in the 1930s.