It's not often that a writer will make me see Chicago in a new way, but with his debut collection of interlocking stories, set primarily in Bronzeville's now-demolished Stateway Gardens housing project for which the book is named, Jasmon Drain has done just that. A young boy named Tracy is our primary guide and narrator, but by the end even the high-rises themselves become fully fleshed-out characters. Though sometimes dreamy with longing for the comforts of a childhood, which, from the outside, appears filled with privation, Drain—who grew up in Englewood and now lives in Kenwood—has fashioned an indelible portrait of this city.
The looming presence over much of Stateway's Garden (Random House) is Tracy's mother. She haphazardly raises Tracy and his older half brother, Jacob, while focusing much of her attention on keeping her looks and finding a man who will stay. The lessons she imparts to her children are blunt and unsentimental. "Life isn't about fun. It's about money," she spits out at Jacob when the boy tries to refuse to go with her to a short-lived job at a store back on the west side, where she'd grown up. To Tracy, who visits this store only once, it is a world of wonder, but to his mother it is but a tiresome means to an end. The chasm between an adult's perception and that of a child has rarely been evoked so precisely and heartbreakingly.
Tracy's overriding wish is for his mother to love him and pay him attention, but he observes her with a mixture of fascination and fear: "Mother stood slowly and put both hands to her knees to guide her legs straight. She released a groan while standing, then walked into the hall, past my bedroom, and made the left turn to the bathroom. She didn't shut the door. She hardly ever shut the door while in there." Here and through many other moments throughout these stories, Drain nails how strange, even foreign, those closest to us can be.
When Tracy and the other boys want to visit other parts of the city, they jump the fence and run across the Dan Ryan Expressway, dodging speeding cars, then vault over the barrier, taking care not to touch the third rail, onto the 35th Street CTA platform. It's a harrowing way to catch a public train, but these boys have no other means to experience places outside their immediate environment. Everyone in these stories is striving to find a better life, to get out of the projects, to live out their dreams. But it's not so easy to forget where you come from; nor do you necessarily want to, when being honest with yourself.
In the second-to-last story, "Love-Able Lip Gloss," Jacob, a beautiful cipher for much of the book, tells his story. Now an overweight, middle-aged man, he can't let go of his past as a youthful heartthrob. He carries on an on-again, off-again masochistic affair with his childhood sweetheart, a woman who managed to leave Stateway Gardens behind. But Jacob couldn't take the leap when given the opportunity and is stuck instead romanticizing the past and ruing what might have been. Jacob is but the last of the people Drain describes in all their complexity. He is not a writer who traffics in caricature or simplification.
I've known of the streets and buildings in this book for decades, but now feel like I've been there. Through slyly poetic language and an absolute grasp on place and description, Drain has added to the canon of Chicago literature. He belongs on the shelf next to Algren, Brooks, Dybek, and Wright—writers who know and love this city in all its magnificent contradictions, its unique, ugly beauty. v