September 15, 2007

Uptown Chicago Novel: City Dogs by William Brashler

I was tidying up my office today, and I came across a stack of books I've been meaning to read: fictional accounts of life in Uptown. They span the decades, the first came out in 1921, the most recent one just last year. I'll post the titles and descriptions on the blog as I get the chance, but thought I'd start with this one first, which I actually did read: City Dogs by William Brashler. Here's the description from the cover:

Chicago’s seamy North Side—Uptown—is the setting for City Dogs, a powerful story of several weeks in the lives of a handful of petty thieves, derelicts, ne’er-do-wells, delinquints, con men, whores, salesmen, maniacs, gloms, and clergymen, all scratching to get by.

Its protagonist is Harry Lum, 57-year-old wino, welfare bum, and petty thief down on his luck, who falls in with two young punks, pimp Jimmy Del Corso and pill-popping hillbilly Donald Ray Burl. From simple purse-snatching Harry graduates to robbery and then breaking and entering. In the process he makes and breaks a deal with the police and moves in with his long-suffering step-sister, Helen, against her better judgment. Before the novel drives to its dramatic climax, the lives of all of them are altered—some violently.

In its uncanny ability to capture the language, rythms, smells—the very essence—of this special world and its polygot mix of people, City Dogs is a remarkable achievement. Author William Brashler was a police reporter on Chicago’s North Side for two years. “For months I met my characters,” he writes; “prostitutes who danced on station house tables, bums who played trumpets, cops who talked to Jesus and carried guns on their ankles.” His first novel, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, was made into a major motion picture.

City Dogs was published in 1976, about the time that Uptown was at its worst. It's well worth the read not only for the story line, but because it is in many ways a snapshot of how the neighborhood once looked.

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