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In Print: a lapsed Lumpen lashes out

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Addie Prewitt hates her job. She's a copy editor for the Chicago-based National Association of Libraries, where the beige walls of her workplace simply are not to her taste. She's disgusted with her demanding, leering boss, Coddles. She's annoyed by her zombie coworkers. As a matter of fact she's disgusted and annoyed by just about everything. She goes through life like a younger, female Ignatius J. Reilly, finding fault with everyone in her orbit while all remain stupidly oblivious to her woes. The targets of her derision are many: slackers, yuppies, her hippie parents, even the elderly (maybe especially the elderly). Her roommate Val Wayne Newton plays Deep Purple at high volume, while Addie's more refined tastes run toward the Ray Conniff Singers and Yanni. The other people in her apartment building don't like her. She can envision only one escape from her workaday existence: marriage to her unappealing but very rich boyfriend, who at least is tall and virtually odorless.

One escape, that is, until she forms an alliance with a fellow employee. To Addie's surprise, Fat Bald Jeff (so called to distinguish him from the other tech-support guy, Other Jeff) turns out to be just as discontented as she. When Addie by chance discovers some pornography in the dry cleaning that Coddles commands her to pick up for him, she and Fat Bald Jeff use that evidence to hatch an anarchic plot that grows ever more elaborate until eventually it throws the staid NAL into turmoil, and the horrid beige walls, in effect, come tumbling down.

Addie Prewitt and Fat Bald Jeff are characters in Leslie Stella's new satirical novel, Fat Bald Jeff. Stella's probably best known as one of the founding editors of the rabble-rousing Chicago zine Lumpen. Delicate Addie might seem an odd alter ego, but the two do have, Stella says, "a certain disregard for authority" in common. Stella worked as a copy editor at the American Library Association's Chicago offices for two years, but she insists that it bears no relation to the NAL in her book, "other than the beige walls."

Stella, who's from Ohio, moved to Chicago after graduating from Marquette University because she wanted to live in a big city and to stay in the midwest. "I didn't know anyone, had no prospects, no money," she says. "Kind of stupid, huh?" She held a series of "humiliating" jobs, but it was her tenure as a secretary to an accountant that inspired much of Fat Bald Jeff. "It was a really small office, but he treated everyone like in the book. Ogling you. It was my first real job that sort of turned me in the Lumpen direction. ALA was a good job, but I just didn't have the personality to take orders from people. I've always been a slacker in the common sense of the word, like walking down the halls with a manila folder under my arm to look like I was working."

Stella left Lumpen a couple years ago, burned-out, to work full-time on her novel. "We were just always struggling to make money at it and keep it going," she says. "It's only natural that you kind of fizzle out after a while. It was such a perfect thing to do when you're in your 20s. Nobody liked their job, nobody liked where they were living, nobody was married. It was why we got up in the morning."

Stella's husband, Chris Molnar, a Web designer and another founding Lumpen "node," left the magazine about a year after she did, and since then Ed Marszewski, the other founder, has put out a few issues a year. But, says Stella, "I still don't really feel like I left. I just talked to Ed yesterday. May is the tenth anniversary of Lumpen and we're going to put out a retrospective issue--try to gather up all the old writers."

Slowly, though, she's moving on. Now 32, she just finished her second novel and she and Molnar have settled in far suburbia. "We lived in Logan Square for a few years, wanted to buy a house, but couldn't find anything we could afford. So we kept looking farther and farther out until we got to Mundelein. We're lucky we didn't end up in Wisconsin."

Stella will read from Fat Bald Jeff on Wednesday, March 21, at 7:30 PM at Barbara's Bookstore, 1350 N. Wells, 312-642-5044.

--Jerome Ludwig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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