Kris gave it to me at Christmas, and now, the middle of May, I have just read its last words. Why so long? It has been my reading while riding buses and trains where, strangely, I find the least distraction of anywhere, but also, it is not a book for hurried racing to its ending for a completed plot. This is a novel of short stories, most eventually continued further along,some very short and complete in themselves, beautifully interwoven to tell the story of a year and a little more living in Chicago and of relishing most of what emerges from its exuberantly diverse inhabitants.
But though he loves the city that’s been his home for a little over a year, the never-named narrator opts to leave for Boston, and today I have read about that leaving described so perfectly and tenderly, which is no surprise since tenderness is a trademark of these stories, save a few that reveal his disdain of captains of politics and church and their abuse of power and people, the very people whose stories he tells. At his place of work, a Catholic magazine, where we have met it’s editor, Mr. Mulvaney who refuses to be cowed by pompous prelates and who, when all is said and done, gives our narrator a yellow #2 pencil, a simple gift he charges with meaning, and others say their goodbyes, and then the good friends who have shared the apartment building where he has lived and joined altogether in the life of that small community in the Uptown neighborhood near Lake Michigan, and finally Edward, the prodigious dog, who knows what this leaving means and stands at attention as his friend, with whom he has shared many White Sox games at Comiskey Park and others while hovering near a radio and much more, drives away in his borrowed Impala. As he drives, describing one by one well-remembered locations, one time near but not quite in tears, until he sees the “Welcome to Indiana” sign, then ponders stopping for some meditating on the meaning of such departures, but decides against it because “what good would it have done, to weep by the side of the road over some arbitrary and ephemeral line of demarcation and departure?”
I am, not surprisingly, plunged into a wave of my own strong emotion. I too had left Chicago, the city of my young,childish dreams, left it five times actually, but it is the last of those times, in late summer 1975, that returns to me with disorienting force on the #15 bus bearing me towards home today. I am brought back to that time, with my family, about to leave for Boston. Movers have taken our belongings; the old house is empty. I am, as well as I can remember, alone as I walk through the house, and then, in the upstairs hallway, whatever had been holding tightly to the reins of my well-harnessed composure, simply lets go, and I place up-stretched and out-spread hands against the wall, and I bow my head low, and I cry aloud. On that crowded #15 I am living again with that memory and although tears do not come, the recollections are overwhelming. That old, old house, locus of our blood, sweat, and many tears, the now-vacant rooms where so much of family life had taken place through eight years, the street barely 50 feet away where Philip’s body had lain as we first saw him, his life leaving him, and us, on that vicious day at midsummer, 1970, and too, a job I’d loved, good people who’d embraced us, and the city, the city of my dreams, the city whose streets had brought so much joy to us, and so much sorrow, and soon we will drive away from it all. As it will turn out, it is a last leaving, for we would not again live there. We will return now and again, but eventually dear friends themselves will also depart for other places, and we too then do not return.
Doyle’s Chicago, the book, has unlike anything before returned that city to me and made me aware of an old love still alive. There’s no regret in such a pleasant return. Reading Chicago has been sheer joy, and even the most painful memories no longer bear the acidity of their once freshness. I am feeling much gratitude to Brian Doyle and to his father, Jim, who as told in the ending credits, was the prompter of this novel.
Brian Doyle, a long time Portlander with credits for a lengthy list of books and other publications and awards, died just about a year ago of brain cancer. He was 60.