Peter Smith—a Chicago author who got away


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Peter Smith has lived his life backward. Instead of coming to Chicago to be a writer, he left it. He took his ambitions to Minnesota, where his pedigree, which is impressive, would do him no good but cast no shadows either. His reputation in Minnesota is all his own doing. He’s known up there for the personal, folksy, meditative commentaries he delivers on Minnesota Public Radio.

But he’s virtually unknown in Chicago.

Smith contacted me a while back because he’s published a memoir, a collection of essays called A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors, and if it cannot quite be considered a Chicago book, it comes close.

Smith grew up in Chicago and Libertyville in the 50s and 60s, and much of the book is set here. Some of it is set in the U.S. Army, which paid Smith to visit Vietnam when it was the most exciting country on earth. Some of it is set in the advertising game, which is where he’s been for most of his adult life. His publisher, the University of Minnesota Press, refers to these essays as a “series of funny, honest, and moving pieces.” What they show is that under cover of humor it’s possible to say about anything.

To say, for instance, that your father, whose presence pervades Smith’s book, was an alcoholic. “Like every other newsman back then, he went to bed drunk every night,” Smith writes.

Listen to the fascinating interview that Smith gave earlier this fall to Rick Kogan of the Tribune and WGN radio. “I loved, loved, loved your dad, he was one of a kind,” says Kogan, who once worked with him. Smith simply allows, “he was a piece of work, we’ll stipulate to that.” And the subject of booze somehow never comes up.

His father was John Justin Smith, a Daily News careerist who joined that paper in 1937 as a copyboy, was still there when it folded in 1978 (he took a few years off to earn a Purple Heart in World War II, and a few more to work for Channel Two in the 60s), and retired in 1983 as the travel editor of the Sun-Times.

And John Justin’s uncle was Henry Justin Smith, author and Daily News careerist who joined that paper as a reporter in 1899 and died its managing editor in 1936.

Peter Smith might have stayed in Chicago and tried to follow in these footsteps. I asked him why he didn’t.
“It almost happened,” he replied in an e-mail. “When I got home from Vietnam, my father offered to get me a job interview with the City News Bureau. He was not big on nepotism. Getting me an interview was as far as he would have gone. I passed up the opportunity. The job would have been more fieldwork than writing, and I knew I was a better writer than I was a reporter.

"Then, too, my father was so accomplished and well-connected. He had contacts everywhere. Richard J. Daley called him 'JJ'. Cab drivers and shoeshine guys phoned him with tips—cops and politicians too. He didn't want people doing favors for me in order to ingratiate themselves to him. Neither did I.

"As for the city itself, it was—and still is—awash in talented writers who were/are hopelessly, head over heels in love with the place. Nelson Algren was still going strong. Studs Terkel too. And Royko, of course. There was Gwendolyn Brooks and Oscar Brown Jr and Steve Goodman. And Shel Silverstein. And Jean Shepherd. And on and on and on. The last thing the town seemed to need was another writer—and a young, not especially polished one at that.

"I had some work to do developing a voice. I'd grown up writing that Chicago newspaper hipster style—a Blues Brother with a manual typewriter. I needed to figure out how to get more detail in—and write more naturally—how to be generous to the reader without getting in the way.

"Minnesota seemed like a logical choice. I'd gone to college up here. I knew the place. It was quiet. I could concentrate. Their sports fans had delusions of grandeur, but what the hell. I had grown up among Cubs fans. I could suffer fools."

If Peter Smith had spent his life here his new book might be a publishing event, to be compared in quality with the memoir of Roger Ebert, But Chicago media don't spare much space for folksy and meditative. If he'd spent his life here he'd have had to find another voice. And the one he has suits him as well as it suits Minnesota. Smith comes to Chicago frequently because he has family here, and next week he’ll be back for two readings. On Monday, November 14, at 7 PM, he appears at the Cook Memorial Library in Libertyville, his old hometown, and Wednesday at 7 he’ll be at the Book Stall in Winnetka. A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors is Smith’s second book—he previously published a collection of his MPR essays. Rick Kogan’s reaction to reading his second book was to order his first. That might be yours.


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