Split-Level Gothic | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Split-Level Gothic

Michael Hornburg returns to the suburban scenes of his youth for a second novel.


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By Cara Jepsen

Back in the 60s, when Michael Hornburg was a toddler visiting his grandparents in Downers Grove, the western suburb was a rural wonderland of dirt roads and cornfields. "It was full of pheasants, snakes, and fruit trees," he recalls.

In 1974 Hornburg's family decided to leave the city, where they lived on the north side, and bought a plot near his grandparents. Things started to go wrong right away. "There was a cement strike when our house was being built," he says. "They'd dug the hole but couldn't put the cement foundation in, so it just sat there." Hornburg moved into an apartment above his grandparents' garage so he could start his freshman year at Downers Grove South High School and lived there for six months. It wasn't exactly party central. "It was an existential life," he says. "The family was still in Chicago, and I didn't know anybody. I didn't really make friends until senior year."

Some time after they finally moved into their dream house, which Hornburg's father had designed, his parents split up. "My father moved back to the city and got a bachelor pad. I went to visit and saw the water bed and the Playboys. He had a girlfriend--she was some sort of art babe."

Hornburg revisits the land of his youth in his new coming-of-age novel, Downers Grove, which he'll read from at Barbara's Bookstore on Wells Tuesday. It's told from the perspective of 17-year-old Chrissie--short for Crystal Methedrine--Swanson, a character Hornburg loosely based on his sister and her friends. Chrissie is a sharp but angst-ridden high school senior who fights with jocks and nearly gets raped, moons over a gas station attendant, and frets about her future. Her doped-up brother rarely leaves the basement, and her mother has taken up with a Bible-thumping used-car salesman. Plus Chrissie's worried about the senior curse: one member of the class typically dies before graduation.

"My sister and I went through all of those things--the Parents Without Partners meeting where we met the new guy, who looked like an astronaut," Hornburg says. He remembers Downers Grove as a place where violence always lurked around the corner, full of acid casualties, fatal car accidents, and homophobia. "I got beat up by a speed freak for walking like a fag," he says. "He just pounded the shit out of me in a cornfield--he stuck my face in the mud and pounded on me. My friends just sat there watching. I changed friends at that point."

Hornburg had attended Saint Philip Lutheran School in the city and was surprised by the white-bread religion of the suburbs. "In the city the church was dark and Gothic; it was completely lit by stained glass. We had a fierce bald-headed minister who was scary. Then I moved to the suburbs and it was like a folk-revival concert--it was big and white and open and there were no Gothic pretensions. It was all happy-happy-happy. I completely dismissed religion at that point, because God wasn't scary anymore. He was your friend, and he wasn't going to get you if you were really bad."

He and his friends entertained themselves with those most classic of suburban pastimes, driving around aimlessly and doing drugs. "We all smoked pot because we didn't really like beer and it was really cheap--$15 an ounce. Acid was $2 a hit. Drugs were inexpensive and easy to get, beer was expensive and hard to get....You'd be in the backseat smoking pot and driving around the culs-de-sac for hours. But we wouldn't go to the city or to another town. We would just circle the parameters of town. To leave seemed dangerous, like you were leaving your compound." But Downers Grove itself was changing. "Once a farmer died, they would build houses right away on the land and it kept growing and growing."

After graduation Hornburg moved to Portland, Oregon, where he played in a band and hung out in a circle of slackers that included Courtney Love--a scene he mined for his first novel, Bongwater, which picks up where Downers Grove ends. He eventually settled in New York, making Super-8 and 16-millimeter films and performing music; his bands Ajax and the Sleeping Pills were part of that city's early house scene. In 1991 he married writer Darcey Steinke, who inadvertently introduced him to his new career. "She was writing Suicide Blonde, and I watched her write the whole book, from like 1988 to 1991 or so. It had a lot of scenes from my life in San Francisco. I didn't know anybody who was a writer, and I didn't realize you could use stories from your real life and write them out and sell them. This was like a whole new thing for me. I was 30 years old, and being a musician was starting to look creepy. So I decided to try this, and Bongwater ended up being far more successful than anything I'd done musically."

These days Hornburg works a day job as a managing editor at Grove Atlantic. "The book world is a different scene entirely. When you're in music it's like a trashy crowd, all working-class kids trying to work their way up to stardom. I was turning 30 and couldn't do it anymore. This was a more genteel pursuit. Literary parties are only from six to eight."

He's quick to acknowledge he has no formal training as a writer. "I'm probably more influenced by film," he says. "I try to keep the scenes compact and short--like one-night stands. If there's any part that makes me slow down and stop, I take that part out. I want people to read it quickly, so they can gobble it up in a single night. My goal is to make people be able to finish the book. I must have started 50 books and got to page seven and was like, 'This is dreck. It's so boring and slow, I can't read this,' and just stopped."

Bongwater was recently made into a movie, which Hornburg says bears little resemblance to his novel. Miramax has plans to make Downers Grove "into a teenage Thelma & Louise." Hornburg wrote the screenplay, and he's working on two more books. The first, which will complete the Bongwater trilogy, takes the characters to New York. The other one is about a couple in Brooklyn Heights, where Hornburg lives with Steinke and their four-year-old daughter, Abbie.

He says he wrote Downers Grove as a sort of "road map" for Abbie. "I know that as soon as she turns 11 or 12 she'll read it. So I set out parameters--here's what's good, here's what's bad. Here's an experience, learn from it. Chrissie is sort of a moralistic character. Bad things happen to her, but she's always sort of fighting off the bad situations. Hopefully Abbie won't be crazy or wild. Hopefully she'll have a more successful life than my sister and I had to go through."

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

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