While there’s been much talk of a local literary explosion of late, with small presses producing outstanding works, native writers gaining prominence, and the deep-pocketed Poetry Foundation spreading wealth, no works can claim the hometown flavor of Michael Czyzniejewski’s Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions (Curbside Splendor, $10).
The handsome book collects dozens of Czyzniejewski’s inspired vignettes in the imagined voices of historical Chicagoans. While functionally comic, the book is hardly a novelty (despite including a chapter called “Rod Blagojevich Negotiates His First Prison Tattoo”). Flexing impressive literary chops, the beer vendor/creative-writing professor captures both the tough, defensive exterior and the vulnerable, often-broken heart of his city. We spoke by phone as he drove home from Bowling Green State University in time for opening weekend at Wrigley, where he has slung beers for more than 20 summers.
One aspect of local culture the book seems to be deeply indebted to is Chicago’s school of comedy and improv, with each piece hinging on tight comic rhythms, and many showing off Czyzniejewski’s ear for vocal patterns (he re-creates the voices of Oprah, Obama and Hefner with the skill of a Second City–trained SNL cast member). “Though I don’t have any background in stand-up,” the author offers, “I’ve been an English teacher for 17 years, and I think that’s kind of the same thing. I have an audience I have to keep entertained.”
The book opens with a brilliant paragraph-length piece featuring Mrs. O’Leary’s ghost comforting Cubs scapegoat Steve Bartman with poetic rationalizations about Chicago’s phoenix-like rise from the great fire’s ashes. It closes with a hilarious slam review of the prior 39 chapters by ‘Carl Sandburg’ (“Word butcher of the world / Tool / Stacker of cliché…”) that recalls the poetry parodies Mad used to run when American schoolchildren were still expected to know poems. In between, Czyzniejewski presents absurdist orations from Chicagoans great and forgotten on topics grand and ridiculous: Svengoolie’s apologetic campaign speech for Berwyn mayor; Ron Santo’s pre-recorded Hall of Fame induction speech, proposing a Cubs’ World Series parade as a rolling Woodstock Festival. The work is made more majestic by local artist Rob Funderburk’s expressive illustrations, which adeptly use gestural linework to elevate the tools of caricature.
While many of the pieces draw on familiar moments in cultural history (Jane Byrne befriending her temporary Cabrini-Green neighbors with poignant family histories), readers might have to hit Wikipedia to fully appreciate riffs on John Wentworth (Illinois governor who turned down a Wisconsin Senate seat he was offered if he’d move the state line so Chicago would be Cheesehead territory), and the Everleigh sisters (turn-of-the-century brothel mavens). Other pieces reward knowledge of ephemera (you’d have to recall Billy Corgan was a guest on the final Bozo’s Circus to understand why Wizzo was pitching the Pumpkin his rock-opera concept).
But Czyzniejewski’s goals in crafting this love letter to his hometown were as much about proselytizing as entertaining. “I want readers to see Chicago as a lot different than the stereotypes,” the author explains. “I want certain overlooked people to be recognized as Chicagoans. I want to show the long history here, and the things I learned growing up here, and the diversity of the types of people that come from here.”
Czyzniejewski reads from Chicago Stories Saturday 21.