Michael Czyzniejewski’s name is pronounced Chiz-knee-evsky. I have gotten that information from a reliable source, not Czyzniejewski himself, but someone reliable, nonetheless. I mention more to poke fun at my own embarrassment at bungling it for so long than to educate any individual reading this. I was ignorant of how to pronounce it properly for an agonizingly long time, and then, what’s worse, I found ways to get it wrong even after I familiarized myself with the correct, or at least accepted, pronunciation. Regardless, Czyniejewski’s name is probably the least noteworthy thing about his latest collection, Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions. That’s no knock on the interesting, daunting quality of Czyzniejewski, the surname. Instead, it places deserved emphasis on the tremendous talent of Czyzniejewski, the author. So let’s get going.
I might be a little more predisposed to love Chicago Stories, come by way of Curbside Splendor (increasingly an indie publisher to be reckoned with, and fittingly based in Chicago, IL), than some. I wear my affinity for my hometown on my sleeve and I love seeing new takes on some of its most recognizable historical persons and places and so on. Now you know how I could be construed as “biased,” though I’m no more than the next biased person, as sports commentator Joe Buck is to St. Louis.
(I also know who Frankie Machine is. You should, too. And after reading Chicago Stories you’ll at least have a better idea of him.)
To delve further into the substance of the collection itself, Chicago Stories is arranged with much the same austere formatting of a McSweeney’s Internet Tendency article. And while almost always hilarious, these discrete pieces are full of thoughtful and innovative, sometimes emotionally wrenching, prose, too. They’re like Internet Tendency if every piece were hand-selected by Mike Royko, George Saunders and Saul Bellow. And with every selection the triumvirate was forced to arrange it as equal parts hard-nosed, humorous and literary. That’d be “The Chicago Way” in terms of high-minded creative writing. It would be much less violent than “The Chicago Way” that Sean Connery’s character in The Untouchables describes.
As for subjects, Chicago Stories covers a wide range of characters, both fictional and not, who fit somewhere within the context of widely recognizable (Oprah Winfrey, Roger Ebert) to somewhat esoteric and obscure (Rich Koz, Steve Dahl). That said, I don’t think this book would be half as interesting without the many tiers of celebrity. Anyone could take a stab at writing imagined monologues of Michael Jordan, Al Capone, Rahm Emmanuel, The Mayors Daley, Bill Murray, Ernest Hemingway, Harry Caray and / or Bozo the Clown (almost none of whom are featured prominently, if at all, in Chicago Stories). You wouldn’t need to be from around these parts to try, and to do so effectively.
But what would be the point?
Chicago Stories isn’t a collection of characters who are necessarily intended to be recognizable. It’s a series of stories by one of Chicago’s very own, sharing a real glimpse of the culture to be found both at home with, say, our infamous political landscape (e.g. machine politics featuring less notables like Jane Byrne (the first and only, to date, female mayor of Chicago) and the more commercial aspects famous denizens have managed to very successfully export abroad (e.g. Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s and John Hughes’ ‘80s brat pack movies).
One story that comes particularly to mind, evidencing all these qualities that make Chicago Stories special, is: “David Hasselhoff Enlists As An Organ Donor.” Again, a concept like this could easily devolve into the worst sorts of self-referential, jargon-ey dreck. A public figure like Hasselhoff, known for his melodrama and more recently his ability to be caught on camera (and thus viral) at an awkward moment of drunken repast, is primed for the bungling of less expert narrative acuity. But Czyzniejewski nicely distills the actor / singer’s perceptible egotism. Hasselhoff waxes high-minded, finding a kind of comfort in his own mortality and the optimism that his organs, like any other vestige of him, could be used for the greater good, not immodestly noting one use could be, “A math genius at MIT discovering a new formula with my brain.” The narrative quickly devolves into an apology (of sorts) for the precautions that the Hoff is now taking, later in his life. “I can gratify myself that I’m doing my best to save the world, just keeping me intact.”
The strange synthesis Czyzniejewski achieves with a knack for knowing just the right pop cultural ephemera to cross with a great personage (or what have you) of Chicago is probably the aspect of this book I most enjoyed. I loved identifying people and then getting a taste of their variegated worlds inhabited briefly by the author. It made me think about and feel attune to the Chicago I love. The Chicago that is subject to political punchlines because of hapless, corrupt folks like Rod Blagojevich or met with horror because of the atrocities of H.H. Holmes, John Wayne Gacy and Leopold and Loeb. The Chicago with a rich literary tradition because of Nelson Algren, and his ability to perceptively and artfully describe the lives and circumstances of Chicago’s (and the nation’s) underclass, humanizing them in ways few writers of the past or present have so spectacularly achieved. I love thinking of our landmarks and the history attributable to them, not least of which being, from Chicago Stories, a monologue authored by the Great Chicago Fire’s most well-remembered surviving edifice, The Water Tower. Other relatively inanimate objects have their say in Chicago Stories, as well. We’re not limiting things to mere people. The city is alive.
But am I getting away from the point? The point as I see it? Before I do that let’s say it’s an imtangible thing. It’s Studs Terkel and Mike Royko hanging out together following the Daily News post publication twilight hours of late late evening and early morning in the now world-famous Billy Goat Tavern (world famous more as a result of its being founded by William “Billy Goat” Sianis also notable for his “Curse of the Billy Goat” that has long tortured Cubs fans and SNL’s parodying (“Cheeburger, Cheeburger” sketches), but still, STILL!). It’s this weird sort of romance for things that I’ve never felt, and probably wouldn’t be the same if I had felt them (for one thing, Studs Terkel probably never accompanied Royko for late night drinks at The Billy Goat, owing to the fact that he wasn’t a journalist per se, among other contributing reasons). That’s what makes Chicago Stories so pitch perfect. As with any city, size be damned, the so-called experience is as wide ranging as the people who inhabit it, and Michael Czyzniejewski’s fictions capture exactly that Chicago-style range of feeling, those different characters and their realities and their fictions.
There’s no “true” Chicago but there are some damn interesting ones, and you can find a whole lot of that, as I repeat myself, in Chicago Stories. You can be nostalgic for places you’ve never been. It happens everyday, probably. If the feeling’s brought about by Chicago Stories you ought to find it pretty entertaining, too.
Also, not to be ignored or discounted are the wonderful illustrations of Rob Funderburk. I think that’s a good note to end on, leaves said illustrations’ goodness as a lasting image. Right?