By David Mamet
Custom House. 352 pp. $26.99
Reviewed by Ron Charles
In Chicago, David Mamet returns to the city where he was raised and where he started to work in theater. The novel also marks a return to the Prohibition era of The Untouchables (1987), Brian De Palma’s gangster film, for which Mamet wrote the screenplay. But what’s striking is how little difference the time makes. The moment you hear Mamet working in 1920s Chicago, it’s obvious that bullet-ridden era fits him as comfortably as a newsboy cap.
Chicago is not overly inconvenienced by the actual history of the 1920s. But if this isn’t the exact history of Chicago, it’s still the city you think you know. Italian and Irish gangsters rule competing halves of the town. Al Capone makes a cameo. With alcohol illegal and ubiquitous, the city government is an institution of organized influence peddling. Every crime scene is picked over by sticky-fingered policemen shopping for their wives and girlfriends.
The professional narrators of this roiling city are the intrepid reporters of the Chicago Tribune, men – all men – wholly devoted to the truth of a good story. These are writers and editors who sip romanticism at home but who chug tankards of cynicism in public.
Chicago focuses on two daily scribes “debauched by journalism”: Parlow and his best friend, Mike, a flier during the Great War still haunted by the carnage he witnessed. They’re men of deep sentiment but “jaded unto death,” constantly ready to mock any wisps of sentimentality. “It was the reporters’ daily job to be brash and unfeeling,” Mamet writes, “to steal the photo portrait of the slaughtered infant from the mother’s bureau; to taunt the spouse murderer into an interesting outburst; to withhold pity for the youth sentenced to death. It was their job to be not only brave but foolhardy. Covering the shootout, the school fire, the flood, the train wreck.”
When the novel opens, Mike and Parlow, along with Chicago’s bloodthirsty readers, are fixated on a pair of assassinations involving the owners of the Chez Montmartre, along with a mistress and her maid. But even as Mike pursues that story, he’s seriously distracted. Like a fool, Mike has gone and fallen in love with a young Irish Catholic lass named Annie, a woman of “shocking virginal beauty.” That he’s not Catholic is a barrier he’s willing to surmount, though he suspects Annie’s parents will be less accommodating. For sure, he knows that if they find out he and Annie have been sleeping together, he’s a dead man. But before that theory can be tested, someone bursts into his apartment after an afternoon tryst and shoots Annie.
Who this killer is and why Mike has been spared are the abiding mysteries of Chicago. We see grieving Mike trying to drink away his sorrow; confounded Mike trying to understand his survival; vengeful Mike trying to find Annie’s killer.
He’s assisted in these various moods by Peekaboo, the African American madam at a whorehouse called the Ace of Spades. (Chicago is an encyclopedia of early-20th-century slurs.) Hard and philosophical, Peekaboo spins off the kind of aphorisms you’d expect from the African American madam of a whorehouse conceived by a white man with a subscription to HBO. “There’s only one known cure for a broken heart,” she tells Mike. “It’s time; and that don’t work.”
Other sections glide along like the winning entry in a Hemingway contest. (Mamet even misspells alright, like Hemingway.) At its best, this can make for irresistible passages of slick, noir prose: “He had loved his job, and its proximity to violence, which, he knew, was a drug, and he had loved the Irish girl; and now he was sick and grieving in that impossible grief of betrayal at having your heart broken by life.”
But it can also make them sound as artificial as characters in a Mamet parody:
“What makes you sad about the rich?” Mike said.
“That which makes everyone sad who is not of their number,” Parlow said. “That they are better off than we; and we brave our unmerited poverty stoically, whilst they sail yachts, and indulge in God knows what depravities in boathouses.”
There’s a lot of that winking playacting. If only Mamet had taken the city editor’s advice: “We require bold, clear words and gruesome pictures.”
Ron Charles wrote this review for the Washington Post.