Swans Commentary » swans.com November 16, 2009  



How Granta Got Lost On The Way to Chicago


by Peter Byrne



Pic: "Art Shay, Aleksandar Hemon, Peter Byrne, and Florence Shay" - © 2009 Richard Shay - Size: 13k

Art Shay, Aleksandar Hemon, Peter Byrne, and Florence Shay
© 2009 Richard Shay



(Swans - November 16, 2009)   Granta magazine belongs to that endangered species, the literary review. A modest cheer is therefore in order each time a new number appears. The fact that Granta generally stays with quality writing and focuses tightly on specific themes deserves another hurrah. A pity that the hash it's made of Issue 108 on Chicago forces any third cheer back down our throat. (1) Granta's attempt to plant a kiss on Chicago's brow ended up in smearing Dubuque's lipstick, or was that in Milwaukee's hair it landed?

One can imagine the editorial brain trust whipping up the table of contents in a dim London pub.

"Chicago's our subject."


"The third US city, the Windy City."

"We're talking weather?"

"Anything east of El Niño is pertinent. We're zooming in."

"Brilliant. Chicago! Who on our list can waffle on about the place?"

"Well, our contributing editor Peter Carey has just written a novel."

"About Chicago?"

"Don't be small-minded. A novel's a novel-long. We'll bang in a fat slice for slot Number One, the view of an Australian who lives in New York."

"His view of Chicago?"

"Of the globe, for fuck sake. We're not parking on Main Street."

"And for Number Two?"

"I'm thinking our Nobel man, Wole Soyinka."

"But he's a bloody Nigerian."

"Exactly, he's black. And who's black in Chicago?"

"That Oprah woman?"

"Her too, but I'm thinking their Mister President."

"That's sharp, and didn't Martin Luther King get run out of town back when?"

"Wole will cover them all, a Nobel-type sweep, all black."

"What about some writers who actually served time in Chicago?"

"We don't want to be restrictive. But there's that whippersnapper, the Bosnian. He got his start hustling in Edgewater."

"Good. Aleksandar Whatchamacallum, Number 3."

"Not that we want to sink the boat with young sprouts. I'm leaving room for the dear departed, as they say in their casket ads."

"Nelson Algren is good n'dead. And there's a pile of his stuff around in manuscript to sort out."

"Right. Their Nelson Algren, Number 4."

"Whose Nelson Algren?"

"You know, the locals'."

"They read?"

"If we have a big name to tell them about Nelson."

"That's easy, Number 5, Don DeLillo, with his upper-story take from the South Bronx."

"Hey! We're hot. Another pint and we'll bullshit our way to Number 20 without overflying one goddamn corn field."


* * * * *


Most of those slots got stuffed with writers who have done no more than scuff their shoes in Chicago and whose only qualification to portray the city is a vague distaste for the rural life. Among the few who belong in a Chicago anthology of the hour are Alex Kotlowitz, Neil Steinberg, Stuart Dybek, and Aleksandar Hemon.

Kotlowitz has always written about Chicago jungle life as someone who lends a hand with a machete. He continues, oozing empathy, in his account of the boy Khalid. Steinberg is one of those insider Chicago newsmen well ripened by cynicism. He profiles a quintessential Chicago political fixer so gluey that even the reader gets stuck to him.

Both Dybec and Hemon have previously turned their Chicago scar tissue into good fiction. But here their bottom-drawer offerings merely signal that they haven't left town yet. Dybec seems to be saying with a wink that his The Coast of Chicago stories were much better. They were. Hemon, on occasion a superb writer, actually steals an idea from Joseph O'Neill's Manhattan novel Netherland and recycles it, flatly, for Chicago: Where O'Neill has his immigrants putting down New-World roots by playing cricket together, Hemon has them kicking a soccer ball.

Consolation for anyone who laid out good money for this cold stew comes in the stunning cover by Chris Ware and the two photos by Art Shay tucked away in the Algren story. That's all the reader will get of the Chicago art scene. As for music, Ben Ratliff has an incisive portrait of Bo Diddley, but Bo, like so many writers here gathered, scurried through Chicago like an autumn leaf. Typically, Rich Cohen, now of Connecticut, gives us a cutesy growing-up piece as disposable as his 2004 book on Chess Records was indispensable to an understanding of Chicago blues.

But the Granta blind spot big as Lake Michigan is the absence of anything on theater. Even Manhattan reviewers and the sparrows in Lincoln Park know that the city's theatrical life has grown exponentially. At Xmas 1959 there were only three plays running in downtown Chicago, and neighborhood shows never made it out of the church halls. In 2003 Stephen Kinzer could report in The New York Times:

Chicago has nearly 200 theater companies, and for at least the last decade it has been the only city in the United States, and one of the few in the world, with a theatrical scene as vibrant as New York's.

At some point the Granta ideas men must have realized that they hadn't got anywhere near uncovering the creativity of contemporary Chicago. In desperation they reached into the past for help and came up with Nelson Algren, dead since 1981. This was a risky stratagem. After hitting the literary heights around 1950, Algren tumbled downhill and by the end of the 1970s hit bottom. He turned to selling scraps of his work revamped with scissors and paste. He would also sign manuscripts he hadn't written and sell them on the strength of his name. Pot boiling is hardly new, but Algren's practice was original in that he would admit it was a sordid business and himself a money grubber out to trample any shred of writer's pride. The detritus was acquired by catchall publications of the day not always very different from Granta. Algren, we can be sure, would have been just as outspoken in his slating of Issue 108 as he was in his self-contempt.

The centenary of Algren's birth fell this year and Granta hitched on to a series of local events honoring him. (His rediscovered story Entrapment is the only glint of pure gold in Issue 108.) Granta organized a soirée in September around the hoard of Algren photos taken by his friend Art Shay. Here the review, indirectly and despite itself, finally chanced on something important about contemporary Chicago, namely its discontinuity and vicious urban redevelopment.

Shay's photos of Algren from 1949 onward picture places that are no more. The down-and-outs of the Mississippi Valley no longer gather like a defeated army on West Madison Street. (Skid Row, Madison Street, 1949; Sunday Morning on Madison Street, 1950) (2) The real estate there was worth too much to property speculators and so the bums were chased into various cracks and crevices elsewhere. Plowed under as well was the Maxwell Street Market, where the melting pot had simmered like no place else in America. It was there that Little Walter at sixteen plugged his harp into an amplifier and gave birth to the Chicago Electric Blues. It was where Muddy Waters went to the Goldenberg Furniture store to buy his first hit record, (Louisiana Blues), the day it was released. (Dawn on Maxwell Street, 1949; and the immortal Yiddish bric-a-brac merchants on page 71 of Couples and page 103 of Chicago's Nelson Algren.)

The photos were shown in the Rainbo Club, North Damen Avenue, billed as Algren's old stamping grounds. The writer had indeed lived nearby for years and made the surrounding streets his own index to what Balzac called la Comédie Humaine. The threadbare Rainbo kept the past alive if you didn't look too closely at the patrons. They were professional people, and like Granta, out for an hour of nostalgia, no more. My own voyage into the past was interrupted by the antithesis of an Algren barfly. He insisted on telling me about his lake-moored yacht and how he was not averse to yachting for the masses.

The streets of Never Come Morning and the Neon Wilderness are still there. But the feral Poles Algren knew have dispersed several evolutionary cycles ago. The neighborhood is now Starbucks-pacified and soberly Latino. A stroll along Damen brings you to Wicker Park, Chicago's sketchy try for a bohemian quarter of its own. Artiness has moved in where Algren found space conducive to making art precisely because there was no art around. Foreign accents still abound but the former working-class metropolis now sucks up to the corporations and sells itself, with tax breaks thrown in, as the ideal home for corporate headquarters.

Art Shay in all this is a voice from the past that won't stop talking back to the present. (3) As a photographer his place is secure in the royal line that goes through Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Walker Evans. But he is not so stolid as Brandt, so lyrical as Cartier-Bresson, or so static as Evans. He is also less sentimental than almost anybody -- including Algren, who had a soft spot for any hooker with a hard luck story.

In the heyday of press photography, Shay was a stalwart of Life, Time, and Sports Illustrated, among others. He has always been willing to give center stage, as at the Rainbo, to his friend Algren. But anyone familiar with Shay's work knows that his photos of the writer are only a small part of his vast production. Shay's world, moreover, has always been wider and more aglow with joie de vivre than the darker planet Algren inhabited.

So we have Art Shay on September 20 in a gentrified patch of 2009 Chicago commenting his shots a half century old projected on a large screen. The photographer is always something of a voyeur, but here he was on the trail of a novelist staking out locations for his next story. Algren, shot by Shay, could be pointing his finger at a whole series of minor characters to come. (State Street tattoo parlor, 1949; Algren on the town, 1950). The difference between these pictures and, say, those of Robert Frank's The Americans of 1959 isn't in their quality but in the fact that their subject, Algren, is directing the show. Nelson as star performer is also in the way.

Shay's comments on the slides are laconic, sometime technical, or a résumé of pertinent circumstance, often slashed by a sudden memory. At times he only utters a "hmmm" or an "eh," meaning, we were like kids and there's Nelson again, doing his thing. Shay's irony is often over the heads of the mixed Rainbo crowd. But he's used to that and doesn't stop to explain. He simply goes forward. That's how he's made the long trek from Bronx River Avenue as boy bugler, stickball record holder, jaunty B-24 navigator, and racquetball champion.

In the Shay-Algren duet, Shay, the younger and, as the photos show, the boy-sized of the two, played the paternal, protective role. In Shay's books and in his many remarks quoted in Bettina Drew's biography of Algren, his solicitude for the writer in matters practical stands out. (4) His literary criticism can be summed up in his down-to-earth conclusion, "He should have written three or four more novels." For Shay, Algren is always the untamed talent balanced on the edge of a dumpster about to jump in.

As anyone who has read Shay's words or been stung by his repartee will testify, the photographer is a writer. His captions tend toward the lapidary. His plays have been produced and he's presently once more absorbed in a literary project. Let's hope that he adds still another task to his agenda. At present we know all about the externals of his association with Algren. Shay might now give us a view less concerned with saving the disaster-prone writer from buying the wrong property, signing self-punishing contracts, or organizing poker games he couldn't win. The new memoir would not be a portrait of Algren or of Shay, but of their friendship. Beyond the obvious and photographable, what was it based on? Clumsy Granta got the story going again. Art Shay should wind it up with a report from the heart.


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1.  Granta, The Magazine of New Writing, Chicago: Special Issue 108, Autumn 2009, London, ISBN 978-1-905881-12-3, 288 pages, illustrated, $16.99.  (back)

2.  Many of Art Shay's photos are reproduced in his books, Nelson Algren's Chicago, U. of Illinois Press, 1988; Album For An Age, Ivan R. Dee, 2000; Animals, U. of Illinois Press, 2002; Couples, U. of Illinois Press, 2003; Chicago's Nelson Algren, Seven Stories Press, 2007.  (back)

3.  Shay has the following to say about Granta 108: As a long admirer and two-picture contributor to Granta, it pained me to see them squander 30 pages of their Chicago issue -- they had billed it as covering "the new Chicago" -- on some student-study-type photo essay of page after page of well-labeled Chicago buildings in various stages of desuetude. To my ancient, probably jaundiced photographer's eye, the one real element of "new" Chicago -- as of "old Chicago" was/is its people -- the kind of faces, invisible in Granta's photo essay, that Algren and I, each in his own discipline, described. Faces that seem to us more beautiful, like our city, for having been hacked out of the hindquarters of adversity.

The repetitious panoply of decrepit Chicago pictures Granta displayed showed but one single Chicagoan in anything like a visible Chicago role -- wheeling a stolen supermarket cart full of his paltry treasures. But you hid half his face in the gutter of your magazine. Phalanx after phalanx of scrupulously dated cemetery-like stone facades -- ah there Cairo -- made me feel that Granta didn't exert its self-visaed passport to explore "the new Chicago." This is not just an old photojournalist being defensive or jealous -- my days of 30-page assignments are long over thanks to my racquetball-impaired knees. Alas, my eye remains clear, and I see the really new Chicago Granta shot at and missed every time I explore my thronging and thonging city.

Technically-accomplished building pictures, especially the kind that serially sigh at their deterioration -- or in the case of Cabrini Green -- disappearance, providing dates of life and death, do not a 30-page statement make. Whatever else it's done -- and it's printed some fine text -- Granta has mounted one artist's architectural dirge of desuetude -- a broken record, not a portrait-symphony of a mighty modern "new" city. Did I miss Granta's lack of notation of the world class Chicago Symphony Orchestra along with its entire theater revolution?

Thirty pages with but one Chicagoan doesn't do it for many of us who love this dynamic city -- Chicagoans -- and even whilom Chicagoans like the acerbically gifted Peter Byrne, whose praise of my work is noted, its exaggerations acknowledged, blushed over and treasured, but, as Cheney puts it, has nothing to do with them there 30 wasted pages. When my dudgeon lowers, I guess I'd say, along with my wife, who loves architectural pictures, wasted pages on only some of us Chicagoans, the kind who still begrudge the Cubs' failures in each of the last hundred years or so.  (back)

4.  Drew, Bettina: Nelson Algren, A Life on the Wild Side, Putnam, 1989.  (back)


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Published November 16, 2009