Book Review: “Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions” by Michael Czyzniejewski

Admittedly, I’m feeling more at ease with expressing love of country today given it’s the 4th of July. And for a writer, using the dark arts of word craft often feels like the best way of honoring such love.

One of the most famous photographs of the last century was the Chicago Tribune’s “Dewey Defeats Truman.” One that could be in the running for this presently unfurling century was snapped about a year ago in the Situation Room of the White House basement. Referred to as one of many Bin Laden Situation Room photos, it’s the one where Hillary Clinton has her hand over her mouth. Clinton, herself, says she doesn’t recall what she was thinking at the moment. But Michael Czyzniejewski does.

In his newest book, “Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions,” the man with the unpronounceable last name (Chiz-knee-eski-ee) offers up the insider information we never knew we wanted. Each chip, bit and strand of story (~140 words to no more than 700 words) feel as intimate as state secrets whispered into your ear by your lover…or your therapist or even Morgan Freeman. And many of them pack a funky punch, as if you found out your favorite restaurant was run by Hannibal Lector; although not possible, it would startle and chill just the same.

Part of this magic has to do with the frisson between the titles of each story and the story itself. “Rod Blagojevich Negotiates His First Prison Tattoo, Joliet State Penitentiary” is funny by itself and there are no crazy plot twists; the story realizes the title. Just as worthy of mention is that this particular story resonates quite easily as Blagojevich was only recently in the news. Most of Czyzniejewski’s fictions are not so recent.

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the first official resident of Chicago, has a voice in this book. William Wells, the namesake for Wells Street, does not. But the Native American warrior who carved out his heart before eating it, does. He also wondered to himself if “there are better paths to self-improvement.”

And so, this book is darkly amusing as well as laugh-out-loud funny. After floating on the most brilliant description of Hugh Heffner’s from-beyond-the-grave description of an orgasm in the afterlife—can you imagine? Ah! You don’t have to! It starts on page 138!— reading the title of the next fiction, “With Nothing Left to Prove, Oprah Winfrey Joins the Cast of Second City,” I put the book down and laughed. Out loud. But the laugh was easy. It was fast, thin as a headline. It was cheap.

What wasn’t cheap was “The Ghost of Rosetta Jackson Lobbies Congress to Continue Funding Planned Parenthood.” On its own, this story gives you goose bumps. You look up Rosetta Jackson, and you realize she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Instead, she’s mentioned in a book and in a blog. Two hits. If this were Back to the Future, she’d be fading in the photo, clinging to existence.

Rosetta Jackson was young and died from a botched abortion. So what? So have many. It’s tragic. But her voice enjoys hindsight, eloquence and carefully throttled anger care of Czyzniejewski. “I can’t believe I’ve heard men utter the phrase ‘We’re pregnant!’ I don’t know how they do it with a straight face,” he as Rosetta Jackson writes, spews, really. No. Lobbies. Many folks have critiqued that this book fails to compel because it’s short, that it can’t offer the tug and pull of a novel because it’s flash fiction. That’s like saying poems aren’t worth your time because they’re not long enough. This small handful of words still haunts me. A novel’s worth? Czyzniejewski manages just fine.

Sometimes being out of the loop is good, great even. And so, I as a new transplant to Chicago reading “Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions” was me reading twice. Once as is, and once after looking up every name mentioned. Along with online research, I spoke to many folks over several months. I brought up the story of Skip Dillard, a boy who held up a bunch of service stations and according to a Tribune article, “‘didn’t have the heart to become a policeman because he hated guns.’” He was co-captain of DePaul’s 1981-82 basketball team. I sought out those who had lived here all their life, those who are a bit sassy when it comes to being from Chicago. I didn’t find anyone who remembered Skip Dillard.

Czyzniejewski writes up Dillard’s story as some anonymous guy who discusses how reasonable and rational Buddhism sounds. He speaks of second chances, of starting over, even if that means risking coming back as a maggot or a microbe or nobody and “could go about your business, live your life.” All of what Czyzniejewski writes is compelling and entertaining. I haven’t thought about reincarnation for a long time, and now, I’m thinking of it again. What sets this prose apart from just clever, thoughtful writing is that Skip Dillard was and is a real guy. All of the sudden, his argument clings, quakes, even.

Stockholm, Ponzi, Walden, 9/11, Auschwitz, Chicago—These words locate much more than place or date or person. Like thumbing the knobs of an abacus, Czyzniejewski allows us to quickly, or not, do the strange crunching of stories necessary to figure out nothing less than Chicago.

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