While "city of the big shoulders" has long served as a sobriquet for Chicago, Brian Doyle may have found its successor: "that middle knuckle in our national fist." The phrase pops up in the first sentence of Chicago, Doyle's charming tale of a young man's brief residency in this "rough and burly city in the middle of America." It will be especially charming to north-siders who know the area bounded by the lake, Broadway, Belmont, and Addison, where the narrator shows up to rent an apartment, arriving with not much more than a job offer, some clothes, and a well-worn basketball.
This unnamed narrator, just out of college, has taken a job as a journalist at a Catholic magazine based downtown. He is well served by his natural curiosity and openness. Set in around 1979 or 1980 (based on a couple of LaMarr Hoyt and Wilbur Wood references, among other choice tidbits), the action follows his explorations of the city, usually by el or bus, but often zigzagging "this vast verb of an urb" while dribbling his basketball.
The physical city itself is mostly rendered extraordinary in Doyle's recounting. But it's the people the narrator encounters who express the city's "Chicagoness." His apartment building is populated by a number of interesting characters. Miss Elminides, the resident owner, is sweet but a bit of a mystery (age, occupation: indeterminate). A woman on one floor bakes otherworldly empanadas (her eventual business is "helped greatly by a glowing review in the Chicago Reader newspaper"). Mr. Pawlowsky, the building's caretaker, who never once in his life has set foot outside the city limits, becomes the young man's confidant and mentor in all things Chicago—and in life.
Then there's Edward, Mr. Pawlowsky's dog. Perhaps Edward, who exhibits wisdom far beyond that of your ordinary canine, is the narrator's foremost confidant and mentor. He knows all the best places and all the best routes to get to those places. Edward is also a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln.
Early on the narrator thinks, "It wasn't all beaches and dream, of course. . . . I paid attention, in my ambling and wandering and jaunting, and I saw a lot of broken and sad and ragged and dark." The book is, to be sure, mostly beaches and dream. But come visit again soon, Brian Doyle. Chicago has changed some since the early 80s, but someone like Edward will still know of a nice gyro joint on the corner. v