Gregg Shapiro is used to quick hits. His poetry is short and to the point, his interview questions are punchy and pithy, and his fiction is equally brief. This brevity, however, does not mean that his stories don’t engage or fulfill the expectations they create. Instead, he makes his statement with quiet effectiveness and moves on. Taken together, the twelve selections that comprise Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories accumulate detail with a poet’s eye and spit it back with a serpent’s tongue.
If you don’t know Chicago, you’ll certainly come to terms with its geography, its smells, its peccadilloes, and its citizens. Shapiro has reached deep into his memory banks and come up with vivid images familiar to anyone who’s grown up in a big city in the Midwest–machinery, particularly cars, and fast food. Sleazy motels and desolate vacant lots. Promise and rot. Family and friends and the certain surety that neither will ever be enough.
The challenge with pieces as short as these is finding the ways in which they relate to each other. It’s not enough to pass them off as little slices of life that don’t stay around long enough to fully engage a reader, as at least one critic has suggested. Rather, they work in concert. The narrators of “Your Father’s Car” and “Your Mother’s Car” both use those vehicles to get to bars, but where the first is concerned with the typical dad domain of the car itself (a horrid orange Hornet–remember those?), the second ends with the beginning of a relationship, which is what many mothers are all about.
And family is all over Lincoln Avenue. I particularly liked “Marilyn, My Mother, Myself,” in which Mom uses Marilyn Monroe memorabilia to not only acknowledge being aware of her son’s gayness, but to celebrate that with him. The fact that he doesn’t particularly care for Monroe is secondary. Mom has done her research and knows how much some gay men worship that blonde goddess. She nods sagely and uses her as a tool, a crowbar with which she can open her son’s life and enter as if she belongs there. Knows what he’s about. And Shapiro establishes this relationship, makes his point, and delivers the punchline in under four pages. Yet it feels complete and whole.
The only nail I couldn’t quite hammer down was “Like Family,” the powerful tale of an abused little girl eventually beaten to death. It’s the piece that doesn’t fit the puzzle, but perhaps that was Shapiro’s intention. Nothing else in the collection is like it, in terms of either theme or execution, which makes me think that its very difference is its raison d’etre.
From “Lunch with a Porn Star” to “The Breakdown Lane” to “Swimming Lessons,” Shapiro darts in and out, bobbing and weaving with championship savvy as he lands masterful blows, punching friendship until turns into love, and nowhere is this more evident that the tremendous title piece. On its surface, it’s just an account of an evening cruising the main drag with a best friend, but the narrator and Kenny have a somewhat different relationship. A little time at IHOP, then back in the car for an assignation in the park, a close call with a cop, more fast food, and the radio. Always the radio. But Kenny has another goal in mind. The boys pull into the parking lot of a motel: The bags are in the trunk, Kenny says to the ancient clerk as he is leaving the office, room key in his hand and a liar’s grin on his mouth. He cocks his head to the left, a signal for me to move over. He wants to drive the car across the parking lot to the room. He wants to put on a show. Suddenly I love him more than air for this. For being the man in my life, when we are really only boys. For keeping me guessing, never sure from one day to the next if he will be fire or water.
If you remember what it was like being one of those boys, this is the book for you. If you don’t remember, this book will bring it all back like the smell of a greasy hamburger wrapper and a smear of Hershey’s chocolate across a freshly-kissed cheek. Highly recommended.
© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler