Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren
“… Chicago divided your heart. Leaving you loving the joint for keeps. Yet knowing it never can love you.”
This book is the perfect embodiment of my love/hate relationship with the city of Chicago. I was born and raised here, living both within and without the city limits, and have seen lots of different sides of her. I have a lot of pride for my city, but it’s pretty messed up, no doubt about it. Nelson Algren seems to have the exact same feelings towards Chicago and perfectly summarizes the city’s character. I found myself startled and surprised by how accurate of a portrayal it gave of this place, even though this was written over sixty years ago.
“Big-shot town, small-shot town, jet-propelled old-fashioned town, by old-world hands with new-world tools built into a place whose heartbeat carries farther than its shout, whose whispering in the night sounds less hollow than its roistering noontime laugh: they have builded a heavy-shouldered laughter here who went to work too young.”
There are some total quote-worthy passages in this poetic prose essay. The writing would oftentimes remind me of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, which also means that this style of writing can feel like a total slog for some. I also had to flip back to the endnotes on a regular basis to figure out who these people were that he kept referring to. Even so, clocking in at a little over 100 pages, it’s a quick read.
“…a city that was to live by night after the wilderness had passed. A city that was to forge out of steel and blood-red neon its own peculiar wilderness.”
Although I complain about Chicago a lot, and fantasize about living in faraway cities, it will always hold a special place in my heart, and I have a hard time imagining myself living anyplace else. This skinny little book, with its unadulterated telling of its beginnings and unabashed presentation of the good the bad and the ugly, has managed to make me love it even more.
“Yet once you’ve come to be a part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may will find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real. “
If you’re from this strange big city tucked away in a pocket of the Midwest, read it. If you’ve been curious about what it’s like, what it’s really like, read it. It’s no Blues Brothers picture, but it’s still Sweet Home Chicawgo.