Greetings, y’all. I’m opting for an attenuated list for August, partially because the posts have been getting lengthier, and partially because I’m still not finished with a major August read (which I’d like to go into the most detail regarding). So here goes with the other two.
A disclaimer: it will strike some as slightly disgraceful that, having lived in Chicago for 4 ½ years, I failed to read both Native Son AND Devil in the White City prior to moving there. I offer no defense; however, I will say that in hindsight, I probably appreciate these selections better now, with five years’ worth of perspective on the history, geography, and modern race relations in the city under my belt. Some comfort, at least.
Native Son – Richard Wright
6 / 10
I have to admit that the tipping point in my deciding to finally read this was my desire to read James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (hopefully to follow in an upcoming month). Putting aside my desire to use it as an ideological stepping-stone, Native Son is obviously a classic in its own right. The plot: young poor black man Bigger Thomas murders young rich white woman Mary Dalton – accidentally, I might add, which basically none of the summaries on this book ever do – and attempts to leverage the unsolved murder into a ransom situation.
The book reads a bit like a crime thriller, which was a surprise. (Should’ve read this one aloud to Grandma.) It’s actually viscerally terrifying almost throughout, and forces a reader identification with the killer akin to that in Crime and Punishment. It also parses, albeit unsubtly, race relations and their entanglements (modern: intersectionality) with sexuality, class, and the capitalism / communism (false) binary. The unsympathetic main character adds a (needed, imo) level of complexity to the reader’s emotions.
Arnold Rampersad’s introduction includes the disclaimer that “virtually from the day of its publication, the artistry [sic] of Native Son has been questioned and found wanting” (xx). I can barely overstress my agreement with this position; Rampersad defends the novel by positioning Native Son firmly amid the naturalist movement, “as well as the literature of social protest in general” (xx). And while this is to some extent true, I find that the message of any artistic work generally resonates better to me through subtle, human execution, rather than through barely-veiled ideologies that underrate the reader’s intelligence.
The worst example of this: Bigger’s lawyer, Mr. Max, indulges in an extremely lengthy and repetitive monologue towards the end of the book, the likes of which I can only compare to those in Atlas Shrugged. Combine this transparent agenda with pulpy prose akin to that of the Studs Lonigan trilogy (another hyperreal Chicago classic, though before Wright’s time period of interest) – and I found myself asleep at the wheel, reading certain lines over and over, not for the sake of comprehension, but in an ill-fated attempt to maintain interest.
I have to say, of course, that the social context of this novel called for this kind of writing (if anything can be said to call for it) more loudly than the modern day.* However, my personal feeling on this sort of fiction is that sociopolitical theory as the driving force of any story leaves the end result feeling hollow. The bottom line: a necessary read whose rudimentary prose is driven along by its wild plotline and righteously, passionately incensed author. After this one, I look forward to finally getting at the Baldwin essays.
* Not to disregard or marginalize today’s legacy of horrific, institutionalized racism… Could have a whole separate post on this statement, probably.
Devil in the White City – Erik Larson
6.5 / 10 **
This was another of my “read-aloud” endeavors with Grandma (who has a definite taste for the macabre). It took two months to get through, and not just because our reading sessions are sporadic. The book is dense, and those without a keen interest in this specific time period or event (not to mention without some grasp of Chicago itself) will find it tough going. However, the structure (see below) fed the morbid curiosity that led Grandma and me to be interested in this book in the first place, enough that we got through – well, most of it.
The chapters basically alternate between the fair and the fraud, the masterminds and the madmen. Burnham & Root are the architects in charge of the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893; H.H. Holmes (alias of Herman Webster Mudget) is a now-notorious career swindler and serial killer living in Chicago at the time of the fair. After Root dies, Burnham and his assembled team of architects – notably among them Frederick L. Olmsted, designer of NYC’s Central Park – become the focus of those chapters.
The Worlds Fair chapters have some interesting tidbits; for me especially, having attended school literally on the site (partially) of the fair, much of the architectural plans and execution were of interest. It’s odd knowing that the grassy Midway now home to so many men in sleeping bags once drew over 700,000 visitors in one day. It’s also odd to recall the overt and untroubled patriotism that drove cities to compete for the honor of hosting the fair, much like the scenario experienced surrounding the Olympic Cities of today. The Ferris Wheel as America’s answer to the Eiffel Tower seems particularly amusing in retrospect.
Those chapters, however, began to drag after three hundred pages or so. There is only so much that interesting factoids, interspersed with grisly chapters about murder, can do to buoy long passages filled with meticulous names and dates and bureaucratic machinations. Isn’t this a book about a serial killer? Ah, yes. Meanwhile, as Burnham and his sidekicks toil away planning the fair, a more sinister plotline unfolds. Anticipating the influx of tourists the fair will bring, H.H. Holmes sets up his infamous hotel of horrors, complete with secret rooms, gas chambers, and an incinerator to rid himself of the ghastly evidence. Another odd sign of the times: pre-cell phone and credit card records, pre-DNA evidence – even fairly concurrent with the advent of fingerprint identification – how does one catch a killer or even realize he exists, even a killer as blatant and relentless as Holmes? Disappearances in the 1890s were less starkly obvious than they are now; it was possible, then, to disappear completely.
A little over halfway through, Grandma began persistently pushing for the Holmes chapters, echoing my own internal monologue – Where were the slasher scenes?! – and so, with her wishes as justification, I began skipping the Worlds Fair chapters altogether. The first 70% of the Holmes chapters had felt like gratuitous foreplay, to two ladies who regularly watch Forensic Files and listen to the Casefile True Crime podcast. Where was the action? When would Larson really take us on a tour through the mind of a serial killer???
Well, it turns out that Erik Larson is just too scrupulous a historian for the likes of us. The gristly fodder we so desperately craved – more common in forensic psychology, true crime genre works, or gratuitous network television – gave way to diligent reportage of the detectives’ search and the evidence in question. In the end, Larson explicitly details his choice in limiting the book to two short scenes in which he describes a murder as if present. In short: this is what I have to work with, given my sources. There are things we just don’t know, the good historian says.
Well, act like you do! Grandma might retort. Her verdict in the end: “Holmes was a real creep.”
Perhaps my rating is unfair, then, given that the book wasn’t quite what I expected, and I didn’t even read the whole thing. But I’m serving it up anyway, in the interest of honesty and the human love of my own opinion. It’s hard to make a book about a serial killer drag, and I think that feat is worthy of this little review. Take it for what you will.
** Hence, my disclaimer on the rating above: I did not actually read all of this book, though if I had read it on my own, I probably would have as a matter of principle.
That’s all I have for August, Part I. And I’ll close with the smug realization that, as summer officially reaches its end, I’ll not have to endure another winter on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Keep reading, kids.