An odd thing happened at the Chicago Classics literary event last night.
Several hundred people had gathered in the auditorium of the MCA Chicago for the final event of Story Week 2012, the annual celebration of writers and writing organized by Columbia College Chicago's dynamic and internationally-respected Fiction Writing Department. They were there to hear about twenty Chicago writers read short passages from their favourite Chicago writers. So, for example, journalist and radio host Steve Edwards read a poem by Chicago poet Maxine Chernoff; author John Schultz read from Saul Bellow; writer and director Coya Paz read from Achy Obejas. The spirit of the event, beautifully hosted by veteran journalist Rick Kogan, was all about writers paying homage to this city of great writers, through writing that meant something personal to them.
So when one person took the stage and took the opportunity to essentially belittle and poke fun at his chosen book, it seemed to my mind to stick out very sharply from the tone of the rest of the evening. That this person decided to do this with the book "American Skin", by Don De Grazia, is particularly puzzling, because of all the contemporary writing that was read aloud on that stage last night, it is "American Skin" that truly deserves the title of a Chicago Classic.
When I first came to Chicago, at the end of 2000, my then girlfriend Patricia Ann McNair put into effect a cunning plan: to show me so many landmarks in Chicago that I wouldn't want to leave. So she took me on a boat trip around the shoreline. She took me to the observation deck of the John Hancock Tower ("the taap of the 'caack," as Patty said in her broadest Chicago accent). And she took me to readings by Chicago authors, one of them an event that included Don De Grazia reading from the first chapter of "American Skin." I remember responding strongly to the writing, but in my typical British way (thankfully modified since then) I went up to Don after the reading and said something flippant, which he graciously let pass.
When I took the time to read the book, I realised that Patty had indeed introduced me to a landmark every bit as overpowering in its effect as seeing the view from the John Hancock tower for the first time: you feel raised up into the air, far up into the sky, to be offered a view not just of a landscape but of a continent, from an angle that can certainly make you dizzy, maybe that can induce vertigo, but which will stay with you for a long time.
Here, for example, is a section from "American Skin" that could have been read to the audience at the MCA last night:
Does anyone remember that De Grazia quotes Sherwood Anderson at the start of the book's epilogue, and that Don himself chose to read from Anderson's "Winesburg Ohio" when he took the stage at the MCA? Read that passage above again. In its sense of scene, the closeness of the observation, the tenderness of the underlying emotion, it's clear that De Grazia is the natural heir to a writer like Sherwood Anderson, and to Ernest Hemingway, and to Hubert Selby Jr.
I've come to know Don fairly well in the last ten years. I wouldn't say we're close friends, though that might just have come about because of different schedules. Whenever I spend time with him, he strikes me as a generous-spirited man, fiercely loyal to the people he likes, completely committed to the Fiction Writing department where he teaches, always thinking of the student writers who flock to his classes. Don is a big guy, too, who looks like he could hold his own in the ring with some of his heroes. So on a personal level, if you see what I mean, Don doesn't need any defenders.
But this piece isn't about that. It's about acknowledging something that got a little lost last night, when "American Skin" ended up being the only work to be mentioned and then not heard from. In a way, to even write any of the above as a kind of defense is absurd, in the same way that attacking or defending the John Hancock tower would be absurd: you can say whatever you like about it, but it's still there, dominating the city. I mean, imagine if you stood outside the Hancock and started shouting insults directly at the side of the building: people would think you were bonkers, wouldn't they?
"American Skin" is already mentioned in the same breath as "Last Exit to Brooklyn", as a piece of fiction that sums up a time for the benefit of all future times. It is a Chicago Classic, which in the words of Stravinsky talking about Beethoven, "will be contemporary forever."
And yes, it is available not just in used bookstores, but very much in your local independent bookstores like The Book Cellar, in Chicago, and on Amazon (link here).