City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist (Broadway Books, $14.95, 384 pages)
“Oh, the winds of Chicago have torn me to shreds….” Bob Dylan, “Cold Irons Bound”
Those who have gone on the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s river cruise will never again look at the city’s buildings the same way. There are many cities in America (New York, with an aura all its own, and Los Angeles with its own unique vibe) that typically rule the pop culture landscape. But there is one city in this country so uniquely American that it is better experienced than described or imagined — particularly when it is paradoxically and arguably the most corrupt city in our nation’s history.
Yes, there is the blue-collar folklore, The Jungle, and everything else, all of which is either true or has elements of truth to it. But Chicago is, and always has been, a mystery of wonder — simultaneously brilliant, politically corrupt, awe-inspiring and bad at baseball.
Gary Krist’s City of Scoundrels attempts to capture the essence of Chicago through the lens of twelve particularly challenging days in 1919. The book starts with a blimp crashing into a bank and then, after it gets our attention, chronicles several events, circling back to this tragic event. A racial incident, transit strike (oh, the unions in this great state), and senseless murder of a six-year-old transpire in rapid succession. These events allow the author to paint a picture of a city and its leaders, including the iconoclastic mayor, William “Big Bill” Thompson, who dreamed of making the city the architectural gem of the world.
In the meantime, for the baseball fans among us, references to the Black Sox scandal are sprinkled in, and the even more corrupt decade of the 20s and Al Capone foreshadowed in the Epilogue.
The factually accurate City of Scoundrels features meticulous research. It is interesting, though this is likely more confined to those who have some existing knowledge of or personal interest in Chicago. It would be less interesting for general readers.
It is a very good book, but despite the shocking events described, it does not capture the raw emotion inspired by the true experience of Chicago — getting off at the train station and being pressurized out of the building into the sights and sounds of the city, seeing the sun over a brick outfield wall as the latest edition of a terrible team attempts to play baseball on a weekly afternoon, or seeing the juices of a barely edible pizza run down the side of the cheek of another innocent victim.
The book feels like an essay. It would be better if it were an essay that felt like the Windy City.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.