October 13, 2014
Book Review: The Lazarus Project

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The Lazarus Project, written by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Riverhead Trade, is a first-person narrative, written primarily from the point-of-view of Brik, a Bosnian immigrant who made a life for himself in Chicago. As an immigrant, he does a lot of writing about the experience, including a column in the Chicago Tribune. It’s through this that Brik discovers the story of Lazarus, an immigrant refugee who died in 1908—shot dead by Chicago’s chief of police in cold blood. Taking it upon himself to write Lazarus’s story, Brik starts by trying to earn a grant—kissing ass with Susie Schuettler, head of the Glory Foundation. How does Brik plan to do it? A picture of he and Susie dancing at Bosnian Independence Day in Chicago. Only the photographer is Brik’s old associate, Rora—an enigmatic figure from Brik’s teens. But in earning Rora’s trust for the photograph, Brik becomes enamored by Rora’s charm again—thus they set off together, following Lazarus’s footsteps from Chicago to the Ukraine, with one quick stop to the country that Brik once called home. Only Brik and Rora never expected what waited for them on their pilgrim’s path.

I’m not an immigrant. In spite of the fact that my name is unique collection of sounds that are in no way American, I was born in this country. My mother is a white woman from Nebraska who earned an associates in engineering because she thought it would pay better than being a mechanic. My father, on the other hand, was an immigrant. In the late seventies, before all the hassle that came with hostage crises and Middle Eastern conflicts, he left Shiraz, Iran (formally Persepolis) and migrated to America. He fell for my mother in their engineering class at Illinois Valley Community College and in his broken English, he attempted to move her to passion. It was in the cafeteria there that he first asked her out—and though my mother felt unsure about dating a man with deep brown skin, curly black hair, and a thick accent, she agreed to a date—she already had a child after all by a deadbeat dad and, in her own fucked up way, she didn’t want to be alone for the rest of her life. Though she knew that her brothers or even her own mother would never fully accept Reza, it didn’t matter—she felt committed to leaving them in their closed-minded ways, even if she inevitably returned to them long after her and Reza escaped—after Reza passed away. But that’s how they fell in love. Years later, I hung out in that cafeteria between classes, watching the IVCC lifers play euchre, listening to my friends talk about their favorite films, and for some reason people actually fucking ate there. In retrospect, it seems like the least romantic place to fall in love with someone. But hell, I don’t have a kid as far as I know. And I’m no immigrant either.

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(IVCC, courtesy of the IV Leader, who used to publish my articles on the origins of various holidays. For some reason.)

Though Brik is our main character, we get a lot of the story from alternative points-of-view—primarily, his interpretations of the characters in the book he’s writing on Lazarus. Lazarus’s sister, Olga, his friend, Isador, and Lazarus, himself complete the picture according to Brik’s immersion into the material. It’s because the narrative is broken up this way that this novel never lulls on the existential tirades that Brik absently thinks on his long, eventful journey. The alternation also sinks us back into Chicago, far from the Euro-Trip of Brik’s endeavors, since Chicago plays as big of a role in his life as his home country of Bosnia. These presumptions follow Brik’s narrative thematically—Brik’s experiences are mirrored in the perceptions of the characters that he writes, as though they took form in the slower paces of his journey in his attempt to come to terms with the ambiguity of his future and identity. After all, Lazarus died a full century before this novel takes place—Brik fills in the experience of Lazarus, Olga, and Isador by drawing parallels to his own obstacles, thus engaging the audience in both his journey and the development of his novel as its portrayed for us. He even goes so far as to include people he meets in Lazarus’s story—filling the gaps with real people, in exploration of who they are in the context of who Lazarus was.

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(Photo taken of Lazarus Averbuch after his death.)

Like I said before, I’m not an immigrant—but I’ve experienced a lot of the same symptoms synonymous with immigrants, as many first-generation Americans tend to. Detachment from society has been a major influence on my work—after all, I have no cultural connections. At once, I’m American and not American. Likewise, I’m not Iranian either. I don’t speak Farsi, I don’t celebrate Nawruz, and I don’t care about soccer. Worse yet, I’m not Islamic. Much as I’d like to understand more of my background, involving myself has only become more strenuous in the years since my father passed away, when I was just old enough to remember him. Another Iranian-American I know took the same route that I did as a way of making amends for that detachment—taking interest not in a nation so vilified as Iran, but in another alien culture that was easier to adapt to American mindsets—or at least it seemed that way. Japan became our adoptive country of interest—for me, it was easy. My first serious girlfriend was Japanese. We fell in love because we were alone as a result of being two first-generation Americans in an all-too-patriotic community, though she dumped me because her parents found me very non-Japanese. They questioned the vagrancy with which I survived in, making straight-As without a family to make proud. To them, I seemed like a loser for what I never began with—born without honor. What I concluded at the end was that I’m not Iranian. I’m not American. And I’m definitely not Japanese. I’m nothing. That’s the immigrant experience that I came away with then. Funny thing about that Japanese girl though—I met her at IVCC.

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(Donna Kawaguchi and I on our first date at the Sears Tower, circa 2007.)

Brik’s wife, Mary, is the face of America in Brik’s eyes. Though she’s not overly Christian or patriotic, she represents America in Brik’s point-of-view because she’s the one thing from American life that he feels proud of. She’s beautiful, she’s smart, and she’s independent—it’s everything Brik ever looked for in a woman. Best yet, she’s American. But it’s that Americanness that Brik grows weary of. She wants to handle problems herself. She’s detached and rejects Brik’s affections much of the time. She wants children and a family, though she doesn’t believe that Brik is quite American enough to serve that purpose. Mary epitomizes Brik’s view on America because of the emotional distance that they share as a result of their differences. During the on-going narrative, we only get murmurs of Mary outside of Brik’s flashbacks. She isn’t part of Brik’s story anymore than America is after he leaves it to follow Lazarus’s path. Like America, she fades into a background conflict—much like the rest of the world perceives America. In the same capacity, the longer Brik wanders from Mary, the less he thinks about her and the United States as anything but a burden that he once escaped to. Their happiness is justified only in brief snapshots of the special moments they shared, but each shot is surrounded by a perpetual sense of unrest, until they venture on without each other. 

I’ve met a lot of immigrants over the years and though all of them come from different backgrounds and cultures, a lot of them tell the same stories: It’s not what I expected, it’s hard to get by, I miss my home. Some of them don’t stay—like the tourists I see at work every day, they came to see how grand it was and left, compelled back to their origins by the chaos this city exudes. They chased a dream here and that very dream chased them back into the embrace of their family, where they were forced to start over or follow in the footsteps of their parents again. I often think about what I missed without my father in my life—if I’ll ever know what it’s like to be Iranian. I’ve read a lot of the literature regarding Persia, I’ve watched the popular films set in Tehran, and I’ve even followed a few Iranian-American comedians. I have a backlist on iTunes of Iranian rap that I tend to pass over, keeping it for culture’s sake as opposed to actually wishing to listen to it. The shitty part about being an Iranian-American is that the laws regarding trips back home, to visit your family, are fuzzy. If I went to see Shiraz, where my father lived and died, where his body has been laid to rest, I may never get to return to America again. Everything I worked so hard to make here would be lost—much like the ghost of my father that I’d be chasing there. Nonetheless, like the dream that he followed here to become an engineer in Chicago’s suburb of Aurora. I start to feel that I am both Iranian and American because of my struggles as a cultural vagabond. I’ve been trying to catch my dreams my whole life, to be a writer and make the important impacts that I think the world needs. But I’m trapped in my past, wondering if I’ll be so poetically buried in the land from where I sprung forth. The immigrant story is that entrapment between dreams and the grounding that made you—leaving safety behind in order to make something new. We’re detached because there is no common thread either here nor there. We’re detached because we chose our loneliness. Either Iranian or American, I may never know—but at least I’ll never be Japanese.

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(Me and my friend, Aria, meeting Maz Jobrani. He’s pretty funny, you should check him out.)

Brik’s not the only story weaver in this novel—his friend, Rora, is too. Though Rora’s trade is photography, Rora keeps Brik at the edge of his seat on their journey by telling stories of his experience during the Bosnian War. Rora tells about his experiences with Rambo, a Bosnian freedom fighter, and Miller, Rambo’s journalist—and how the three of them struggled to survive in the war while going on wartime adventures. Rora paints Rambo as a modern-day Che Guevara with a blood-thirsty lust for power and Miller sounds more like an extreme example of a Gonzo journalist, out to capture the very edge of death that Rambo leaned over. All the while, Rora follows along taking photos. What struck me about these tall tales was how they relate to Brik’s own experiences—it’s a story that doesn’t involve Brik, but it’s about the struggle that Brik missed out on when he left Bosnia to come to America. It adds a new dimension to Brik’s identity crisis—the Bosnian he couldn’t be. Rora, with a life and past that exceeds Brik’s understanding, is a lot like Mary in that way too—Rora is Brik’s perception of Bosnia, while Mary is Brik’s perception of America. Though Rora is familiar and kind, so much happened in Brik’s absence that he may as well be a stranger, welcoming Brik because of Brik’s blood alone without giving him the deference of those that survived the bloodshed. Brik must recreate his home with only just stories and the news to craft his own idea of that world, because like how he is not American, he is not Bosnian either. Rora is the personification of that news, colored by Brik’s own ideal of what a true Bosnian is.

My friend, Nick, is a descendant of a Jew that survived the Pogrom to make her way to Chicago. He told me the story of how her family put her on a train at twelve or thirteen, to take her to a boat and eventually arrive at the new world—one where she could be safe. The amount of research that went into this book is amazing, but not so amazing as Hemon’s own exploration of the existential crisis that is the coming to terms with your own cultural identity—whether you’re one nationality or another, or you’re just born alone and will inevitably die alone. His point-of-view is so much like my own that it reminded me of the very same struggle that I endure every day. It’s as though I put the pen to paper myself and wrote this story without remembering it—only Hemon beat me to the punch. Nick, on the other hand, related to Lazarus because of the stories that he heard of how his ancestors first endured here. He saw an alternate reality for what could have potentially happened to his blood-line and it scared the hell out of him in its accuracy. On a lot of levels, this novel hits home, no matter where that home happens to be. This is the true story of an American dream.

The Riahi Rating:
★★★★★
5/5 stars.

About the publisher:
Riverhead Trade is pretty much the literary subsidiary of Penguin books. Though we know Penguin to publish a lot of literature, this is the ground-breaking, award-winning shit. You’re not getting in on this one without an agent—though if you do get in on it, you’re definitely on the right path.

October 11, 2014
Book and Brew: Mass Effect: Revelation and Clown Shoes Galactica IPA

No matter where the galaxy takes you, there’s always another adversary waiting beyond the next revelation. Float further on, on asteroid belts and solar flares—the next challenge waits beyond the next nebula, waiting for you to fly forth—faster than the speed of light.

Mass Effect: Revelation, Del Rey: “Every advanced society in the galaxy relies on the technology of the Protheans, an ancient species that vanished fifty thousand years ago. After discovering a cache of Prothean technology on Mars in 2148, humanity is spreading to the stars; the newest interstellar species, struggling to carve out its place in the greater galactic community. On the edge of colonized space, ship commander and Alliance war hero David Anderson investigates the remains of a top secret military research station; smoking ruins littered with bodies and unanswered questions. Who attacked this post and for what purpose? And where is Kahlee Sanders, the young scientist who mysteriously vanished from the base–hours before her colleagues were slaughtered? Sanders is now the prime suspect, but finding her creates more problems for Anderson than it solves. Partnered with a rogue alien agent he can’t trust and pursued by an assassin he can’t escape, Anderson battles impossible odds on uncharted worlds to uncover a sinister conspiracy… one he won’t live to tell about. Or so the enemy thinks.”

Galactica IPA, Clown Shoes: “Galactica, a hop-staff wielding heroine, patrols in karate kick mode through the heavens. Dry hopped with Galaxy hops, a clean malt backbone enhances the dank and luscious IPA flavors.”

October 8, 2014
RUI: 'Reading Under the Influence' A Unique, Spirited Live Lit Show

RUI gets repped by the Chicagoist. It’s easy to see why we’re one of Chicago’s longest running literary reading series.

October 5, 2014
CCLaP: The CCLaP Weekender for October 3rd is here!

The Basic Red Coffee Pot, written by Daniel S. Libman. Edited by Behnam Riahi.

"He wasn’t smart at all. He only knew what he knew because he failed at so many things, so many times.”

September 30, 2014
RUI: Reading Under the Influence October 1st, "DUDE RANCH." | Facebook

Here’s the playbill.

The Date: Wednesday, October 1st.
The Theme: “DUDE RANCH.”

Please join us Wednesday, October 1st, for readings, drinks, and trivia at Reading Under the Influence. This month’s theme is “Dude Ranch.” Giddyup, son.

This month’s readers:

BRIAN COSTELLO, author of Losing Gainsville
MATT ROWAN, author of Why God Why.
JOSEPH G. PETERSON, author of Gideon’s Confession.
GINT ARAS, author of Finding the Moon in Sugar.

RUI features readings of original short stories plus short-short excerpts of published work related to a theme of the month. This month’s theme is “DUDE RANCH”—so, dude, you’ve got to come. Of course, we’ll have booze, trivia, and solid stories for all you cowpokes. Yeehaw, and stuff.

We’re in the back-back room off the courtyard patio at Sheffield’s, 3258 N. Sheffield Ave. Grab a seat and a bite to eat at 7 pm; readings start at 7:30 pm. There’s a $3 cover. 21+.

Wednesday night, October 1st. 2$ domestics. Come on out.

RUI.

September 22, 2014
Book and Brew: The Lazarus Project and He`Brew Messiah Nut Brown Ale

Our roots are not just the blood that binds us—it includes the perceptions granted to us. Whether the dawn is past or yet to come, sip deep of the love of your ancestors and the paths they walked. Like the Messiah to Lazarus, they will bring you life again—for they are the forerunners to the future that awaits you

The Lazarus Project, Riverhead Books: “On March 2, 1908, nineteen-year-old Lazarus Averbuch, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant, was shot to death on the doorstep of the Chicago chief of police and cast as a would-be anarchist assassin. A century later, a young Eastern European writer in Chicago named Brik becomes obsessed with Lazarus’s story. Brik enlists his friend Rora-a war photographer from Sarajevo-to join him in retracing Averbuch’s path. Through a history of pogroms and poverty, and a prism of a present-day landscape of cheap mafiosi and even cheaper prostitutes, the stories of Averbuch and Brik become inextricably intertwined, creating a truly original, provocative, and entertaining novel that confirms Aleksandar Hemon, often compared to Vladimir Nabokov, as one of the most dynamic and essential literary voices of our time.”

He`Brew Messiah Nut Brown Ale, Shmaltz Brewing Company: “A complex yet smooth blend of bold dark malts revealing hints of chocolate, coffee and toffee paired with a lovely hop character.”

September 20, 2014
Book Review: Office Girl

Office Girl, written by Joe Meno and published by Akashic books, is a third-person, present-tense novel following the point-of-views of Odile, an art school drop-out who works from office-to-office while trying to find something meaningful in her otherwise mediocre life, and Jack, a recent divorcee at the ripe age of 25 with a collection of sounds recorded on tape to create a grandiose art project that’s far from fruition. It’s 1999, an end of an era, and Odile and Jack feel like they’re missing some element of themselves in order to mature to adulthood. They meet in a shitty office job they both take to stave off starvation and their own biological clocks when, struck by inspiration, they start their own artistic revolution against pop culture and expectations of societal norms. As they grow closer, they begin to realize that they never missed anything at all.

Claire, this girl I’m seeing, lent me this book—as it turns out, like most of the Columbia College Chicago undergraduates, she also had a crush on Joe Meno at one point. I can’t blame her—just about every girl I dated in college owned a copy of Hairstyles of the Damned and even if I didn’t like it, I respected the guy. Unlike some of our professors, no one ever accused Meno of hooking up with a student or even making someone sexually uncomfortable. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say anything mean about the guy. Not a goddamn word. Like, one of my close friends, Wyatt, had Meno for this thesis adviser and went so far as to even say that he felt luckier than most of the rest of the graduate students because of Meno’s attention to detail and direction in helping Wyatt to craft his stories. Even on the rare occasions where Meno and I ran into each other, he seemed cordial—even if he probably didn’t know who the fuck I was. He’s just that kind of guy.


(Columbia, courtesy of Newcity.)

I think it’s fair to say that most authors tend to write characters that are somewhat like them. One look at Joe Meno and you might think, “Wow, hipster.” Of course, this book is about anything but hipster culture. In fact, to conclude that there’s even a culture behind being a hipster is about as accurate as calling black kids from bad neighborhoods “urban youths.” Since the eighties and nineties, two decades convoluted with subculture and associative labeling, people have tried to peg what the hipster generation is and, according to Office Girl's book jacket, it's this. Being a starved artist with no tangible direction toward the future. Yeah, I guess you could call that a hipster. You could also call that being a fucking artist. Or anyone who tries to endeavor in a field saturated with inane attempts. You would think with all the mass consumption in modern America, not a single fucking artist would go hungry so long as he was making art. However, this generation is also defined by an incline in hopeful, art students. With the surge of art school graduates trying to find a practical buck, we define what has become formally known as “The Hipster.” A generation of dreamers and yada-yada-yada. You want my two cents? Joe Meno isn't anymore of a hipster than Stephen King, only he makes less money and has a better reputation for capturing the awkward, emotional state of the midwesterner. They both write in very diverse ways and they both publish pretty damn frequently. The only difference is, this book is supposed to make you feel something. Call it hip if you want—then find a bridge and jump off the goddamn thing. 

But that’s what this story is about—it’s about two people trying to avoid classification, to figure out who they are, and discover something actually meaningful in a world otherwise populated by drones. The characters don’t smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, they don’t drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the Smiths are never once mentioned. They got lost along the way and had no one to help them figure themselves out. In that sense, Joe Meno as a person bleeds into his characters. He writes with an innocent abandonment of common sense, allowing his characters to behave irrationally while simultaneously instilling how their irrationality is completely rational. It’s the author’s voice that accomplishes this. Because Meno’s story is present-tense and utilizes passive verbs, he creates an unearthly sense of stillness around the characters—as though nothing is going on unless they act. It’s as if the entire world is completely frozen, waiting for these characters to make a choice. And sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. When they act out, it hits hard—but when they don’t, the absence of action in their emotional discomfort hits harder. Because of the author’s voice and his choice of tense and language, he’s able to navigate them without much interruption from external forces. They’re not acting irrationally anymore—they’re rationally acting immature because there’s no reason not to, because nothing matters but fighting every reason to hesitate.


(Hipster Behnam? Emo Behnam?)

Claire says that I remind her of Meno. She says it’s the way I speak, the way I tell a story, and so on. I think she’s just embracing her beloved professor through me though. I can live with that. I bought Hairstyles because I was working on my own high school novel (which I am still, technically, working on), and although I didn’t have the same love for it as any number of my former romances, I do find similarities. We write from the point-of-views of those who look at the world from the outside—people who see everything that’s going on around them but feel detached, as though life is ongoing while the narrator or point-of-view is simply sitting still. A lot of indie movies are painted in this way—like in that movie, Garden State, where Zach Braff is sitting on the couch at the party and everything around him speeds up while he’s just sitting there, waiting for something to enact upon him. Only with writing, it’s more difficult than a couple of camera tricks borrowed from Scrubs. In writing a detached character, you can’t just simply say that he does nothing and let that be it. The medium doesn’t allow for the sentiments of apathy—authors are forced to make their characters engage. If anything, Joe Meno and I write very similar characters in that capacity—people who don’t know how to act but are invariably forced to in order to push the story forward. But we eventually do.

Characters make this novel magic. I often hold a lot of authors on high for the minutiae they include about their characters, but with so little plot behind Office Girl, Meno is forced to derive even deeper, richer characters than most. And he does. You don’t just know how Odile makes a living—he defines her daily rituals, her influences, and her loves in the space of a few brief instances and experimentation with the forms. It’s not just back story though, because it’s important to the context of the story. It explains her irrationality to even finer degree and alludes to the direction this novel was bound to flow toward. Likewise, Jack isn’t just the product of never-ending heartbreak—we gravitate to him because Meno defines how his mother’s divorces crafted him, his aversion to the organic, and attraction to the subtleties of surrounding noise. This plot isn’t merely defined by its characters—it is its characters, in all their magnificent flaws and hidden truths and the fragility that we know they have, that they choose to expose in only the most tender circumstances.


(Joe Meno, at Reading Under the Influence.)

Like many local authors, Joe Meno has read at RUI before I took its reigns and I’d like to get him back in there again some day. But that’s just the culture of the literary community here in Chicago. I’ve seen him read about a dozen times, between faculty readings at school and Story Week Chicago events and AWP headliner shows. It’s a community here and, even though he and I don’t know each other, we’ll run in to each other a dozen times more before I can convince him to come back to us. With any luck, I hope to osmose some of that Meno charm and luck too. After all, Meno published his first book when he was 24 and, though I tend to tell people I’m 22, the truth is I’m due for some of that magic. But that’s what his work is—it’s ancient, Chicago magic. The stories that we lived already and forgotten are brought to life again in the very human interactions that he creates. He is not merely an author, but a purveyor of buried memory.

This is a Chicago story. This is a story where no one wants to meet anyone, because this city is full of strangers who fear being judged and thus feel alienated by others. This is a Chicago story, illustrated in the way that two people who are lonely, who have no reason to trust each other, do, because sometimes, you meet the right person at the right time and you just have no other choice but to follow the old cliches. This is a Chicago story because it doesn’t contrive meaningful moments—it finds them in the carpeting snow, in the vacant, unfinished offices, and in a crisis of hope. When I read this book, I thought of any number of girls that I endured this city with—the still kisses as the snow falls through the window, the selfish use of blankets when shared with someone naked, and the exhaustion experienced from going from one neighborhood to another in order to touch that person again and wait through the night in her crappy apartment. It even reminds me of those that I didn’t share this city with, like the mother who worried too much about what dangers awaited me here and the lost love who never did stay here, out of fear for what this city would make of her. What touched me was that this story wasn’t a serendipitous love story, as portrayed in films (which Meno nods to in closing), but a Chicago love story—the love after art school, after art, when art itself is no longer grandiose works but the small evidences left behind that you were alive. That you were there and in love and who cared, because you were happy no matter how many times Chase Bank calls to remind you that you’re overdrawn or that your student loans were due.


(The Chicago Blizzard, 2011.)

There’s a lot of reasons to dislike this novel—the prose tends to be short and fragmented. Very little actually happens in the novel. The characters are awkward and, sometimes, kind of stiff because they’re so awkward. But it’s for these reasons that this novel is true. Thus, this novel is paramount. Well done, Meno. I never liked Hairstyles, but I may have judged you too soon.

The Riahi Rating:
★★★★★
5/5 stars.

Other reviews of Akashic Books:
Bedrock Faith, by Eric Charles May
Hairstyles of the Damned
, by Joe Meno

September 15, 2014
CCLaP: The CCLaP Weekender for August 29th is here!

Hit the Switch, written by Mark Wagstaff. Edited by Behnam Riahi.

"I told lies and worse than lies, through the unravelling of who I used to be."

September 11, 2014
Book and Brew: Office Girl and Spiteful Brewing “Case of the Mondays.” Summer Ale

Summer or winter, Chicago will wear on you. As you trudge, day-in and day-out, through the monotony of every day life, you need to hold on to the little things to race forward: a beer after your shift, the cute office girl who smiles at you over the cubicle partition. Drink deep of both, because they’ll have to last you another year longer.

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Office Girl, Akashic Books: “No one dies in Office Girl. Nobody talks about the international political situation. There is no mention of any economic collapse. Nothing takes place during a World War. Instead, this novel is about young people doing interesting things in the final moments of the last century. Odile is a lovely twenty-three-year-old art-school dropout, a minor vandal, and a hopeless dreamer. Jack is a twenty-five-year-old shirker who’s most happy capturing the endless noises of the city on his out-of-date tape recorder. Together they decide to start their own art movement in defiance of a contemporary culture made dull by both the tedious and the obvious. Set in February 1999—just before the end of one world and the beginning of another—Office Girl is the story of two people caught between the uncertainty of their futures and the all-too-brief moments of modern life.”

"Case of the Mondays." Summer Ale, Spiteful Brewing: “Are you a company man, or what? Endless voicemails, 200 emails. Douglas needs those reports yesterday! I hope your kickball game was worth it - we lost our number two account. Now we need to circle back. So call your wife, you’re staying late tonight. If it’s any consolation, this summer ale will make Monday feel a lifetime away. Bright and refreshing, this beer is smoother than any Monday you will have. Is it Friday yet?”

September 8, 2014
Book Review: The Old Neighborhood

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The Old Neighborhood, written by Bill Hillmann and published by Curbside Splendor, is a fictitious memoir written from the point-of-view of Joe, a boy living in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood in an era of racially-motivated gang violence. Joe’s older brother, Lil Pat, is one of the heads of the TJOs, the gang that runs the old neighborhood, and Joe’s social circles are well on their way to joining the fight too, though Joe’s other older brothers, Rich and Blake, manage to stay out of the way. Nonetheless, all of them are affected by the world they live in, including Joe’s adoptive sisters, Jan and Rose, and it isn’t long before violence grips every member of Joe’s family during the coming storm. The worst blow of all comes when Lil Pat takes the thug life too far and heroin works its way into his lifestyle. The result? He’s put away and the rest of the TJOs look to Joe to step up. After all, Rich is too volatile for friends and Blake is trying to maintain a reasonable grade-point average to stay in a college he barely got into. But Joe’s not alone—his crew steps up too: Ryan, the brother of another lead TJO, and Angel, a young playboy with a twisted sense of humor, both join Joe as they start selling marijuana and making stands against other north side gangs. But as Joe falls in love and discovers an interest in particle physics, he begins to realize that the thug life was not what Lil Pat wished for him after all.

I got this book courtesy of our friends at Curbside Splendor, though I’ve got history with Mr. Hillmann. The first literary reading I ever attended was hosted by Bill—the Windy City Story Slam, with guest reader Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting. It wasn’t long before I got to hear all about their relationship—Hillmann, Irvine Welsh, and Don DeGrazia, author of American Skin, used to get into bar fights with cops, or so I heard. Who can tell with writers? Either way, while studying under DeGrazia and becoming a regular attendee at The Windy City Story Slam, I got to learn a lot about Bill and his escapades. It wasn’t long before I stepped up to the plate and Bill put me on Windy City Story Slam’s bill.

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(Probably the first time I appeared on a poster.)

Andersonville, Edge Water, Bryn Mawr—whatever you want to call it—I lived there for 22 months, no doubt on the same block as Joe and other characters of this novel. The only difference is, while Joe is in the streets battling back rival gangs, I saw a lot of young professionals starting their first families and college youths still trying to get drunk off Pabst Blue Ribbon and two-dollar bottles of wine from Trader Joe’s. Gentrification, I guess? It wasn’t like the neighborhood was devoid of trouble—there were a couple of low-rent housing apartment buildings and homeless guys hanging around outside of the bodega trying to bogart my cigarettes. The experience I remember most is a neighbor in my own apartment building—his name was Don, a young chef, and we talked restaurants while we smoked cigarettes outside of the building. One afternoon, Don approached me with a twitch in his eye. He told me that he had a dream where the grim reaper followed him down the street and then, according to Don, raped him. But it only began as rape and became love-making. As uncomfortable as I felt, I didn’t want to be a dick—so I asked him what the grim reaper looked like. He unlocked the door to the building and said, “You don’t know?” The twitch in his eye strobed to a silent rhythm as he grinned with years of embedded hurt. Then he slammed the door in my face. Unsettling, sure, but I’d seen that behavior before. Back in college, I had a roommate who was a recovering heroin addict. The behavior, denoted by paranoia, social ineptitude, and broken motor functions was all too familiar. When I saw Don again, he apologized for slamming the door in my face, but made it clear that he didn’t trust me. He pointed to a hoodie I wore, with the Legend of Zelda logo on the breast, and said that I wore symbols of the enemy. He said he and his friend built a time machine to fight the enemy, a time machine in their minds, and using their time machine, their whole community can fight the enemy. I decided then that I needed to move out. That’s why I now live in Pilsen now.

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(Edgewater, courtesy of choosechicago.com.)

Of course, Joe’s interpretation of the neighborhood weighs heavily enough on himself, what with heroin coming into the neighborhood and danger lurking around every corner. Hillmann does a fantastic job of capturing Joe’s fear as he runs around the neighborhood, dropping a new dread or trouble on Joe’s lap with each new chapter. From problems as meager to cheating on his girlfriend to issues as dangerous as wondering why his sister’s running with a rival gang to thoughts so profound as questioning the meaning of life through science, Joe’s fears are all captured in the serious, gritty tone captured in the colloquial speech and world-building tangents. We closely follow Joe’s thoughts because we’re in his head, so we feel what he feels as Hillmann gives a physical description to the hurt of Joe’s anxiety. It’s these descriptions, paired with the ambiguity of what actually waits around the corner, that makes this novel a relentless bulldozer on the audience’s emotions. Even Joe’s nightmares distinguish this book among others in the way it continually thrashes its main character—in these horror fantasies, the Assyrian (a young man that Joe watched die at his brother’s hands) commands a monster composed of Joe’s grotesque imagination that aims to hunt and devour everyone that Joe cares about—the monster, however, is the neighborhood and the Assyrian is the vengeful ghost of Joe’s conscience and the neighborhood’s victims. This personification comes in tandem with Joe’s own physical ache resulting from his anxiety and not only compels the audience into Joe’s emotional state, but the physical state that results. And no matter where Joe goes, a new torture awaits him.

Bill Hillmann, like myself, also worked for Criminal Class Press. He was the talent manager and, upon joining as an intern before becoming the publicist, I was given a very unusual request by Bill. Plaster-casting my cock, live and on stage. You see, I made quite a name for myself in the literary community by talking about my dick. Legendary, they said, though whether that’s in reference to my audacity or the size of my wang, who knew? Either way, Bill caught wind of it and asked me to join the stage and be the first person to get a plaster-cast mold of his dick made before a live audience. If it’s half-as-bad as I remember it, it’s probably not worth recording here, but I never said no to a challenge—it was done by Jo-Jo Baby, a local artist who sculpts statues out of plaster-cast cock moldings, and I was given a bathrobe and a screen. While the molding happened, Bill set up a microphone so I could answer questions by the packed Viaduct Theater while Jo-Jo put a cool, thick lather on my joint. I only had one problem—stage fright. I could answer the questions just fine, but I couldn’t get hard. One thing that I failed to mention in my stories is that I’m a “grower” and not a “show-er.” The result was one, tiny penis sculpture—and though I still had fun, and Bill and I built our relationship, I believe I’ll think twice before volunteering to do that again.

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(Great fucking idea, Behnam.)

Like myself, Joe is on blast on the regular—though he’s mostly trying to run under the radar, everyone seems to seek him out because of what he represents to the community and his group of friends. With a huge trove of characters, all of whom know Joe all too well, it’s no surprise that he needs someplace to go. For relief, Hillmann invites us into Joe’s memory—times spent with his grandfather on the pier or at the lake with his family. Water represents peace in Hillmann’s piece and it’s these flashbacks that allow us to rest through the chaos of Joe’s dysfunctional community. These flashbacks aren’t just moments of rest, but thematic too—they represent where the story begins and where it ends. Joe’s dreams, like his nightmares, are surreal, and instill a sense of ease as much as his nightmares create one of unrest. Using water as Joe’s safe-haven is especially poetic, considering that his nightmares are inspired by a neighborhood known specifically in the story as “Edgewater.” It’s this juxtaposition that gives the narrative a well-crafted beauty that’s both subtle and deeply meaningful, painting meaning to the drama of Joe’s life. In addition to adding an extra layer to the story, characterizing the neighborhood in Joe’s nightmares as a monster and embodying water in Joe’s dreams gives the reader clues as to what may happen next as he fights to overcome each new painful discovery that awaits him, while still raising the stakes because the allusions are both soft and hard, both scenic and destructive.

I worked with Bill a little while after the plaster-casting on both events for Criminal Class Press and for Windy City Story Slam. With Criminal Class, he and I toured the east coast together and, while I drove the company’s car rental from Chicago to New York, he drove from New York back to Chicago. We split the stage on a number of occasions and sat in on a number of company meetings in an effort to make Criminal Class Press what it eventually became, prior to both of us quitting. After New York, I also did some publicity for Windy City Story Slam—but as the Story Slam faded behind Bill’s own ambitions to become an author, my public relations career slowly ended with my desire to leave the literary community and focus exclusively on finding my own voice as an author. Still, in spite of it, I clutched on to the things Bill told me. He explained in depth that The Windy City Story Slam, his baby, happened as a result of constantly pushing. He explained to me how he could barely fill a small room for that first Story Slam and by the end, he had magnificent theaters packed. He described the importance for a budding author to promote themselves and overcoming fear to face the world through story—I think that’s why I left the community. I just wanted to bring something bigger to the table to promote, although you never know what it is that will draw you back in again.

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(Hillmann and Welsh. There’s a duo I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.)

There are things that I took issue with in this novel too—it wasn’t all just grit and poetic irony. In my opinion, the book needed another round of edits. Though mostly stylistic choices, the book uses a lot of sentences composed exclusively of capital letters and redundant punctuation in order to express an extension of volume or push an idea—however, it’s hard to take stylistic decisions like that seriously. It brings too much levity to the dark, gloomy world that Hillmann is attempting to create. The use of colloquial conjunctions doesn’t help either—gonna, wanna, etc. Nor does replacing words like “that” with “dat,” when writing the way Joe speaks as a child. Overall, a lot is lost in the creation of this world with this style and I think the story speaks loudly and clearly enough without manipulating type-face or tongue-and-cheek phonetics to capture the world that they live in. In spite of that though, the story is engaging as hell and if you can allow yourself to look past it, you’ll find a rich, substantial world that both teaches you in great detail about the neighborhood you once called home and pushes you to the edge of your seat.

Though I’ve awaited this for a long time, Bill’s publication with Curbside Splendor brings new life to his career. In all the years I hosted readings, publicized publications, edited manuscripts, or generally struggled in the literary industry, I’ve never met anyone who worked so hard and promoted himself with such enthusiasm to become an author as Bill Hillmann. Reading excerpts from this novel in Criminal Class Review were not enough to inform me about how grand of a novel that this would become and I consider myself privileged to have both worked with Bill and to have read this wonderful piece in its entirety. I look forward to his next work and, with any luck, I hope we get to see Joe and his fucked-up family again. All of the characters of this novel were so well-written and deeply moving that I’ve come to consider them regulars from my own neighborhood, even if I’m not living in Edgewater anymore.

 The Riahi Rating:
★★★★☆
4/5 stars.

Other reviews of Curbside Splendor books:
Zero Fade, by Chris L. Terry