Friday, December 16, 2016

The Third Coast - Thomas Dyja (2013)

The One Book, One Chicago program by the Chicago Public Library has been going since 2001, but this is the first time I've ever read the book at the same time as everyone else.  These are the books that have been part of the program (asterisks if I have read it) (exclamation point if I've been meaning to read it):

To Kill a Mockingbird *
Night *
My Antonia
A Raisin in the Sun *
The Things They Carried *
The Coast of Chicago
In the Time of Butterflies
The Ox-Bow Incident
Pride and Prejudice
Ivan Denisovich
Interpreter of Maladies *
Go Tell it on the Mountain !
The Crucible 
The Long Goodbye
The Right Stuff !
The House on Mango Street
The Plan of Chicago
Brooklyn *
A Mercy
The Adventures of Augie March !
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
The Book Thief
The Warmth of Other Suns
Kavalier & Clay !
The Third Coast *

Technically I think there are 2 books per year, and next year's will be Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  Maybe I'll check that out because I have serious concerns about my diet, but let's move on to discuss the book at hand.

First, you should know that The Third Coast is a history book.  One of the blurbs on the back compares it to E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, and I think it's an apt comparison, though it's not fiction: what that book was to New York in the 20's, this book is to Chicago in the 40's-50's.

It's a big book at over 400 pages, but an even bigger research project, with 80 pages of notes, sources and indexing.  I probably wouldn't have read this book if it hadn't been added to the One Book, One Chicago list, or if my co-worker didn't own it, or if I hadn't seen my boss reading it.  He lent it to me when he was finished and it took me a while.  The first few pages were a bit of a slog for me, as I got used to the style of the writing, and the subject matter of the book.  But after about 100 pages the rest went relatively quickly.

To give a brief overview, this book is primarily about architecture, music, theater, literature, painting, photography, politics, television, industry, and education.  It features a truly dizzying cast of characters, and I will attempt to name the major ones: Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, the Chess Brothers, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Mahalia Jackson, Chuck Berry, Reverend C.L. Franklin (and his daughter Aretha), Sun Ra, David Shepherd, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Ed Asner, Nelson Algren, Simone de Beauvoir, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Katherine Kuh, Henry Darger, Harry Callahan, Elizabeth Wood, Adlai Stevenson, Richard J. Daley, Studs Terkel, Burr Tillstrom, Dave Garroway, Ray Kroc, Hugh Hefner and Robert Maynard Hutchins.  I'm probably forgetting a few, and also elevating the presence of a few.  The major characters are Mies, Algren and Daley.                    

Before we go any further, it is worth comparing this novel to Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, because there is a certain degree of overlap.  Certainly, this is a much better book, but that is not to Royko's discredit.  Royko worked full-time as a journalist.  The Third Coast is a long term passion project that fortunately appears to have paid off.  What's striking is that the tone is not altogether different between the two.  Royko comes off more volatile, but that is probably just a component of his subject matter.  Whenever Dyja writes about Daley, the tone is practically identical.  For this reason, most of the material about Daley did not affect me as deeply, most likely because Boss was a more thorough treatment.  Of course, anybody who has not read about Daley before will likely be at least a little bit shocked and awed.  It's worth noting that both books contain a paragraph about the air raid sirens used to signal the Chicago White Sox pennant victory.  However, Boss does not mention the disastrous Pan American Games that Chicago hosted in the late 50's, which is easily one of the most hilarious paragraphs in the The Third Coast and the one I most regret not excerpting.  Perhaps that was one of the minor reasons Chicago did not get the Olympics in 2016.  I shouldn't say it's hilarious because there is death in it, but there is also a Lake Forest reference (and I enjoyed all the references to the towns of my childhood, as much as they were always associated with the term "white flight").

For all the subjects that The Third Coast covers, architecture is its focal point.  Near the end Dyja states that, "the city now has the greatest collection of modern architecture in the world." (343) But he also mourns the many buildings that have been lost, including, most poignantly at the very end, the Garrick Theater.  I have never been on the architectural boat tour of Chicago, but have always meant to go on it.  One of the more pleasurable experiences of reading this book was looking up the buildings mentioned on Google or Wikipedia and seeing whether I recognized them.  Most of the time, I did.  I had to look up the Robie House (one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous buildings, along with Fallingwater and, of course, the Guggenheim) before I could remember how it looked.  Mies van der Rohe basically made the Illinois Institute of Technology what it is today, and if I had to define the style of his buildings it would be "rectangular glass."

Frank Lloyd Wright mostly appears as a kindly father figure, except in a few angry moments.  By the end of the book he is into his 90's, and I did not know he lived so long.  At that advanced age, he apparently presented this, which I had never heard about before:

"The building mania continued.  Nineteen fifty-six was on its way to being the busiest year of building ever in Chicago history, bigger than the years after the Fire.  New construction would top a billion dollars.  'It would be an error to say everybody was putting up a building in the Chicago area,' said one builder.  'A few were not.  They were still working on the plans.' That included Frank Lloyd Wright.  With Sullivan's hundredth birthday noted--barely--that September with a small exhibition at the Art Institute, Wright weighed in with plans for a mile-high skyscraper, The Illinois.  Mayor Daley, a lover of big plans, proclaimed October 17 'Frank Lloyd Wright Day' and at a benefit dinner in his honor at the Hotel Sherman, Wright unveiled a twenty-foot-high rendering of the 5,680 foot, 528-story topping out amid passing clouds, angular, inspiring, and gradually more ominous the higher up you went.  The Illinois Wright said, would be 'a finger in the right direction of humanity,' though which finger he was showing humanity no one could tell, since he'd done nothing but slam Mies and every modern skyscraper.  'I detest seeing the boys fooling around and making their buildings look like boxes,' he told reporter.  Calling Daley 'the only Chicago mayor since 1893 who had boldly enlisted himself on the side of culture,' Wright went on to lambast the sorry state of education, architecture, and car making until it sank in that The Illinois was little more than a publicity stunt." (338)

I think that would be a pretty cool thing to have in a museum, the twenty foot rendering.  And generally, this is what makes The Third Coast great--all of these little events that most people probably do not know about, little significant moments in history that happened here.  You could pick out any number of subjects from the book and make a movie out of it.  Or you could make a musical out of it, like Ragtime, again.  Probably the most compelling story is the history of segregation in Chicago.  The book ironically boasts that it is not as badly segregated as Milwaukee or New York City, but I'm frankly surprised it's not #1.  But the history of public housing in Chicago, which could maybe have the background of these more famous architects, would likely make for a compelling film.  Dyja has given a very detailed portrait of the times in the city that is the functional equivalent of having a grandparent or other elder to pass down oral history.

While the book is great, it is not perfect.  A bunch of little gripes about it keep me from recommending it unquestionably to everyone.  Dyja kind of annoys me with his writing.  Most of the time, it's fine.  But he seems to have the habit of making personal remarks about the beauty, or lack thereof, of certain women in the book.  I'm not gonna go through it and count how many times he does this, but referring to a woman as "almost attractive" or some variant, seems to occur with ironic frequency.  And he has this habit of becoming extremely casual with his language out of nowhere, as if to personify the person that he is writing about--usually when writing about black musicians, dropping "motherfucker" kind of out of nowhere.  And then he's just kind of clueless about how needlessly-linguistically-convoluted some of his stories become.  This description, of the 1956 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, confused me so badly that I had to re-read it several times, and still don't totally get what he means:

"Stevenson gave over the selection of his running mate to the floor, leading Mayor Daley to nominate the junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, much to the horror of his father, Joseph Kennedy, who through business, politics, and crime was drawing his clan closer to Daley's Machine.  In the end, JFK and Peter Lawford would console themselves at Chez Paree while Kefauver, the man in the coonskin hat, won the chance to stand beside Adlai for a second, if possible even more eggheaded, campaign than the first.  More interested in being right than winning, it seemed, Stevenson delivered deeply considered speeches that paralyzed listeners.  Centrist to a fault last time around, he now split himself in two: on one hand advocating the establishment of the draft, limiting nuclear testing, and attaching Nixon's character (history would vindicate him there), but then going limp on civil rights.  Not only would he refuse to use federal troops to enforce Brown v. Board of Education, at one point he even suggested to a black audience that January 1, 1963, the one-hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, should be the goal for school desegregation in America.  The Soviet Invasion of Hungary and the Suez Crisis, just weeks before the election, destroyed what little chance he might have had.  Daley led the traditional torchlight parade to the Stadium, but this time there'd be no Truman-esque magic; Ike finished with forty-three states.  Adlai once again lost Illinois." (337)

Now eventually, that paragraph begins to redeem itself, but the first few sentences are extremely confusing.  Maybe I'm just dumb, but why would Joseph Kennedy be horrified by Daley nominating his son for VP?  And it seems to be left to the floor, but what say does Daley get?  I'm probably just naive about the nomination process, but it stills seems like a ridiculously confusing to way to explain what happened in the name of literary style, if you can call it that.  Sometimes Dyja assumes the reader is with him, referring to names that he assumes a reader will remember have from a page or two before, but I often lost track of who he was talking about.  So yes, I would say the writing is clunky at times, but Dyja redeems himself with the sheer force of his research.

That is pretty much everything I wanted to say about the book, but a word should be said about Nelson Algren.  Now, I have never read him, but after reading this, I will seek him out.  It seems like The Man with the Golden Arm is his masterpiece, so perhaps I will start there.  Dyja seems to write about Algren with increased gusto, as if he himself is trying to occupy the space that Algren once held as the "literary heavyweight champion" of Chicago.  This is generally a good thing, and Algren's love affair with Simone de Beauvoir is one of the highlights of the book.  The close research of their relationship is apparent:

"In May of 1949 he flew to New York to check in with Doubleday, continued on by boat to Le Havre, and then took a train to Paris, where he arrived weighed down with gifts of food, clothes, and liquor.  Simone installed him in her fifth-floor apartment on the Left Bank at 11 rue de la Bucherie, down the street and through Viviani Square from Shakespeare and Company, a view of Notre-Dame out the window.  No other man would ever sleep here, she promised.  Algren loved Paris.  Much to his surprise, he actually got along with Sartre, thought he thought the philosopher looked like a shoe salesman, and even Simone poked fun now--Sartre, she said, would fall in love with any woman who'd stick her tongue up his ass.  Evenings in Cafe de Flore, Algren drank with Albert Camus, Raymond Queneau, and Boris Vian, author of the potboiler I Spit on Your Graves, inspiration for the 1959 crime film (though Vian allegedly had a fatal heart attack at its screening; his last words--'My ass!').  Juliette Greco in a black leotard wriggled in his lap while he regaled the Family with hyped-up tales of back-alley Chicago.  A reunion with Richard Wright did not go well, though.  Algren saw his old friend now as less of an expatriate than a deserter, while Wright expected Algren to stay." (191)

The Third Coast should prove interesting to most readers, and useful for students and scholars as a gateway to deeper research on topics that have played a significant role in the city's history.  While it ends on a rather poetic note (incidentally, on Simone and Algren's enduring bond), it is also somewhat somber and ominous.  The city had its moment, Dyja seems to say, and then began its steady decline.  Today it certainly has its fair share of problems, particularly as the murder capital of the country (or the world), likely an effect of the continued segregation of the north and south sides, but many of us love it and embrace it as our home, even as we complain constantly of how miserable it can be much of the time.  It always seems to be corrupt, one way or another, but it remains one of the most intriguing areas in the country, and will continue to produce great artists and thinkers, even as many of them abandon it to settle down in one of the other two coasts...