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As the whole world knows, when Hollywood was filming Glengarry Glen Ross, there was a concern that the stage play wasn’t long enough to be a decent screenplay. So David Mamet added a scene to the screenplay, the famous scene where Alec Baldwin stomps into the story for a few minutes and berates the salesmen who aren’t Al Pacino. “Coffee is for closers,” he shouts. “Always be closing.” And, this being a Mamet project, a few words that I can’t include on a family book review website.

This is “snappy dialogue,” you understand, and Glengarry Glen Ross and Mamet’s other films are chockful of it. In the Miller’s Crossing screenplay, Joel and Ethan Coen note that the snappy dialogue tends to dry up “once a guy starts soiling his union suit,” but that’s never been a problem in Mamet’s universe. And CHICAGO, God bless it, is a veritable fountain of snappy dialogue, flowing from his pen as from a dark and corrupted stream.

The reader may come to this novel expecting a story, and said reader will not be overly disappointed. The protagonist, Mike Hodge, is a scrappy Chicago Tribune reporter in the age of Al Capone, a veteran of World War I air battles, and hangs out in disreputable bars and reputable whorehouses. It’s a man’s life in a man’s world, and Hodge makes his lonely way through it until he is surprised by love --- and then devastated by its loss.

"Despite its evocative cover of a gangster with a Thompson gun, CHICAGO is high-grade literary fiction, more about characters and worldviews than crime and corruption."

That is the story, such as it is, a sad tale of loss and revenge, and it hardly matters. CHICAGO is not a typical historical mystery; it is more about human motivations than solving a crime. And it doesn’t rely a great deal on crime-solving technique; Hodge spends most of his investigation bumbling around, following up on leads, waiting for people to explain what is really going on. And none of it matters.

Despite its evocative cover of a gangster with a Thompson gun, CHICAGO is high-grade literary fiction, more about characters and worldviews than crime and corruption. More pearls of wisdom flash by than bullets. And if the wisdom is hard-edged, bitter and cynical, perhaps all the better.

The real question that the book has to address from a marketing perspective is whether or not it will be able to win readership from outside of Mamet’s fan base. I have followed his career ever since a college professor recommended House of Games, which is a fantastic character study wrapped around a deeply twisty and satisfying story. But if you’re not in the market for rapid-fire profane dialogue, will you be won over?

It is something of a close question, but the answer is “probably not.” The difficulty in dealing with CHICAGO as a reading experience is not so much with Hodge, but with the people he talks to. There is another reporter who is more or less his mirror image, an African-American madam in a comfortable brothel, and a collection of crooked cops and honest gangsters. There isn’t a character in the book outside of Hodge who couldn’t be filled by Central Casting without a moment’s consideration. (And I kept hearing Hodge’s voice in the same Irish lilt that Gabriel Byrne used in the aforementioned Miller’s Crossing, if that gives you an idea.) And the characters generally play true to type; there isn’t one moment when any of them surprise you, or themselves.

But neither the story nor the characters are the real point. The real point is Mamet himself, his skill, his ability to wring evocative prose out of the overworked, sterile soil of the hard-boiled crime novel. His understanding of the way people speak to each other, when to deliver the smart retort or the impassioned diatribe. This is a novel of big-shouldered conversations, the rough and tumble of speech, what people say and do not say, and how it all works together.

Hodge’s fellow reporter remarks at one point that he has stopped reading a certain author because of stark, staring envy at the writer’s prowess. This book evokes those same feelings for anyone who tries to write dialogue --- making it a teeth-grinding experience for some. But for the rest of us, who revel in snappy dialogue, CHICAGO is an unalloyed joy.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on February 28, 2018

by David Mamet