Into The Badlands Chapter 7: Sara Paretsky & Eugene Izzi
That’s About As Cold As It Gets
Part One: Sara Paretsky
Sara Paretsky is a woman who wears aviator shades and has discovered at 42 the appeal of American football as a sexual spectacle for women. She is also a shy woman who combines diffidence and elegance in more or less equal measures and who worked for some years for an insurance monolith before making her name as the prototypical author of detective fiction with an avowedly feminist slant with a series of novels featuring PI V(ictoria).I.Warshawski. "I wrote the first one in '79. That really came out of several different impulses. I had wanted for years to see it I could actually write a novel and you get to be 30/31 and you realise that a lot of the things you thought you might do simply aren't possible ant more.. In your twenties you think you're immortal and will always be at a high level of phusical ability so you can defer maiking choices - and then you come to the realisation that you are going to die. It seemed to me that the time had come to see what I could actually do, to stop living a fantasy life."
"I decided to write a detective novel because that's what I mostly had read, so I knew them better than any other kind of writing. And I very much wanted a book with a female protagonist, because, particularly in American crime, its hard to find a woman character you can really identify with. I tried a couple of things that didn't work and then one day I was in a managenment meeting - you know when you're in middle management you're really the baloney in the sandwich, you have to execute the really dorky ideas of your seniors and get people who don't have any desire to be at work to do them. So there I was, sitting listening to this real conehead that I worked for, pretending that I thought he was a genius while the balloon over my head said 'this is so stupid I can't believe it'. Then suddenly I just had the idea that I would have a detective who was not a parody of Spade or Marlowe but just a woman doing a job that had traditionally been done by men. So she would be facing the typical difficulties but she would have the advantage of being able to say what was in the balloon over her head because she doesn't have to worry about being fired. I wanted her to be very Chicagoan, which means very ethnic, so I gave her a Polish father and I'm not good with ethnic last names so I thought OK Warsaw's in Poland, so Warshawski is bound to be Polish, though people tell me its not. Anyway its Polish to me."
Sara Paretsky scared the hell out of me when I met her outside my hotel on my first morning in Chicago. Missoula had left me a physical wreck, and a night spent in a fleabag motel in a nowhere suburb of Chicago listening to glass breaking, deals going down in the parking lot and screaming children had done little for my mental equilibrium. I had too many clothes on and the sun was out; still it was probbly the residual alcohol in my blood that was causing to sweat like a pig. I arrived at my new hotel in the city centre late, just at the time I had arranged to meet Paretsky, having intended to leave time to shower and change. Instead I'm stood in the office, checking in and dripping sweat when this purposeful woman in huge shades and a mass of frizzy hair gets out of a car and approaches holding what reveals itself as she approaches to be the new Margaret Atwood novel.
Oh shit, she's here already I think, and, completely discomfited, do what I generally do in such situations, behave with staggering rudenss, grunting rather than speaking. Without realising or intending it both of us have succeeded in thoroughly intimidating the other and the first half hour or so we spend driving around Chicago is distinctly sticky
Sara Paretsky has now written six novels, all of them featuring V.I.Warshawski, a character who, as ever with the fictional private eye, has elements of the alter ego. VI has a background working for an insurance monolith, she's an anglophile, a dog-lover, has similar political views to her creator and started out at around the same age, though, again in the private eye tradition, she seems to be aging at about half mormal speed.
The fact that the novels are centred around the character of VI is both their abiding strength and potential weakness. A strength inasmuch as VI is emerging book by book as a tremendously convincing heroine, a woman holding her own in a man's job in a man's world. But a weakness because if, as the likes of James Ellroy or Tink Thompson suggest, the male PI hero is fundamentally unbelievable, then that goes double for a female character. And at first VI's credibility as a working PI was somewhat lacking; Joe Gores proposes the descriptions of fire-arms as an acid-test of whether the author knows what he or she is talking about and one of the acknowledgemts at the start of Paretsky's third novel, Killing Orders, runs as follows 'Kimball Wright, enraged by repeated errors regarding the Smith & Wesson in V.I.'s previous adventures, provided me with better information about the weapon.'
Parestsky, though, in a way that is pretty much analagous to the likely experience for a woman in real-life becoming a P.I, is learning as she goes along. However she is well aware that the convention of the private eye is not strictly realist; "In some ways my books are very unrealistic, in the things that V.I. does. I sort of think that a significant for women is being at home in their own bodies, and the idea that - of course its becoming increasingly difficult for anyone of any sex to walk on any street in America - the idea that you don't have to worry about what street you walk on would mean that the goals of feminism have been achieved. (For women a lot more mean streets??) In a way VI acts out of what I idealise, she's someone who doesn't have those fears, which is really not true of any woman I know. My ground rule is that she will not be sexually assaulted at any time, and of course that's not realistic with the kind of risks she takes, but it's something that's important to me."
The hotel I'd found was just north of the loop, Chicago's business district and after dark mugger heaven. The hotel itself was blandly similar to every other down at heel motel I'd stayed in, just three times as expensive, reflecting the incredible lack of half-way bearable hotle accomodation in the city. V.I.'S office is down in the loop, but first we're heading north towards the area she lives in, the gentrifying near North Side. It's a pleasant neighbourhood with a lot of trees, big houses, mixed population. Its major north-south artery is Clark Street, which has its share of the trendy restaurants, second hand record shops and comic stores which signify a neighbourhood in transition from multi-ethnic to yuppie via bohemian; but for now its a relaxed area well served with good diners and containing, at its northern end, Wrigley Field baseball stadium, home of the Chicago Cubs and something of a shrine to Paretsky who is a major baseball fan, "I think that the high point of my life so far was when I was selected to play third base for our baseball team when I was 12. I was a great fielder but a terrible batter. Great on defence, that's my story!"
From there we swing west, Paretsky wants to call by an abortion clinic that she's been helping out at. As we speak the Supreme Court is engaged in deciding whether or not to uphold a challenge to the legality of abortion. That abortion should be freely available is a cause she believes in passionately and she's worried. Her feeling, which turns out to be correct, is that the Supreme Court will hand back to the individual states the right to make abortion illegal. Potentially meaning that abortion would be unavailable outside a couple of liberal states like New York and California. So she's been demonstrating and organising in favour of a woman's right to choose. The day before she'd been down at the clinic to help combat an anti-abortion picket. Today she wants to see if there's any more trouble expected. As we drive she expresses her concern for the men involved in demonstating for abortion. She's worried that if they're arrested, they'll be thrown into Cook County Jail, a place where the weak or naive scarcely prosper. Rape, she points out, is not something that only happens to women.
All's turns out to be quiet at the clinic and our conversation moves on to the question of how politics, in this case specifically feminist politics, should influence the writing of a mystery novel, "I think I wanted to write a novel, that was my first goal", she says, "I have very strong plitical beliefs on a lot of subjects other than feminism. Actually I was thinking about this last week, even though I'm opposed in general to all these isms, feminism is sort of a religion for me I suppose, a kind of organising principle. But still my first goal is to tell a story that is interesting and has characters the reader can believe in. I find that when I take my characters seriously, they have points of view that I wouldn't accept if I was working woth them. In Killing Orders, which is partly set in a Dominican monastery, I found that I was being empathic with these Dominincan friars in a way that I wouldn't... I mean my older brother converted to Catholicism and became a Dominican, which is why I picked that denomination, but they really get on my nerves when I go and visit them at his monastery. But when I'm writing about them I have to see their point of view. So my books are more political than a lot of people like but theyh're not as political as I am. I mean I'm not interested in writing political tracts and I'm certainly mot interested in reading them, I can write essays and I do do that, but for me telling a story is in a way more valuable than writing an essay. I don't think you ever understand exactly what's happening in your life - or anybody else's - but telling a story about it makes it clearer than any description can, at least for me."
"So that's why I like to write stories and having them be political is not a very great goal of mine. Actually I've been wrestling with this, I've been approached to write a short story for an anthology, and I actually have a short story that I kind of like about this man who lives with these two horrible women, his wife and his mother, and what happens to him. I was feeling a little bit chicken about sending this in because the feminists, who are my major supporters, might be offended by it. I was thinking, do I have the guts!"
Now we're heading towards the near west side. The south side may be Chicago's largest and best known ghetto area but the near west side takes some beating for concentrated grimness. Along the way we pass a high school where PAretsky has been involved in setting up a birth control clinic, hopng to bring down the unbelievably high pregnancy rate, an initiative that is now in severe jeopardy. Next we encounter some local landmarks; the Cook County Courthouse, the Cook County Jail and The Cook County Hospital. Each of these is bleaker than the one before. The hospital looks grimmest of all, it's one of Chicago's few public health resources and an icy remeinder that in America you get the health care you pay for. Sara Paretsky tellss me about her stepson, a machinist who lives and works in a Hispanic neighbourhood, in which he has something of a reputation, there not being a whole heap of other 6'4" blondes in the locality. He's her main source of information as to what's happening, as they say, on the street - with the gangs and all. He's also self-employed and without healthcare, because it would cost him $5,000 a year, self-employed. So if he gets sick or hurt he is, bluntly, fucked. Paretsky is less than impressed with this state of affairs. Her fourth novel, Bitter Medicine, vividly illustrates the extent to which running medecine as a profit-based industry is in the long term interests of virtually nobody.
Bitter Medicine also features an absolute rainbow coalition of women, blacks, Jews and old people fighting back against the inhuman manipulations of the WASP doctors. Unfortunately the effect is ultimately more hopeful than realistic. I wondered whether the multi-hued array of good guys'n'gals was influenced by the politics of Jesse Jackson - perhaps Chicago's most famous resident. "I think the idea of the rainbow coalition seemed possible when Harold Washington (Chicago's first black mayor) was alive, I think its largely disintegrated since his death. I found him a very hopeful figure, he brought out the most hopeful side of people. I don't think there's anybody on the political scene right now, white or black, who can generate that kind of feeling. Jesse Jackson is not a very popular figure in Chicago, we see him too closely, I don't know...he's the ultimate opportunist I guess. I was writing Bitter Medicine early in Washington's administration, maybe that influenced me."
Washington's (black) successor Mayor Sawyer failed to capture the hearts and minds of virtually anybody and in the lead up to the upcoming mayoral elections the Democratic nomination, traditionally a shoe-in, had been wrested back for the Chicago establishment by Richard Daley, son of the infamous Mayor 'Boss' Daley. From out of the south side, however, a challenge had emerged from Alderman Tim Evans running as an independent iwth the full weight of Jesse Jackson behind him. The election is imminent as we speak but Paretsky is hard pushed to work up much enthusiasm one way or the other. DAley she reckons, is basically stupid, a man whose Spanish language election posters are so badly translated as to be meaningless. Evans, on the other hand, she sees as a charlatan, happy enough to radicalise the black proletariat, but preferring rhetoric to practical help that might lift them out of his automatic electorate.
Heading back in towards the centre we pull up in an old Italian enclave, a few spacious red-brick blocks surrounded by factories and the elevated railroad tracks ('the el') that are the defining feature of inner-city Chicago. This is where we're having lunch, in a dark airy and half-empty-at-this -time-of-day Italian restaurant that firmly subscribes to the Italian-American habit of ladelling an insanely large quantity of sauce on to your pasta. Having battled my way through as much of this as my ongoing hangover would stand for, and resolved to impersonate a decent human being by joining Paresky in drinking mineral water, we're both starting to relax a little and begin to figure out that both of us are nervous, not trying to be cool, Up to now I've been having trouble producing anything much more coherent than a grunt and Paretsky has a diffident way of talking. She's half way into a sentence before its actually out of her mouth, hurrying like she's afraid of boring you, the kind of nervousnes that it's easy to take as rudeness. Still things are flowing a little better now and after I mention that Denis MacMillan in Montana had told me that he had been taught by her father in Kansas, she starts talking about her background.
"I was born in Iowa in 1947, I'll be 42 in June, grew up in Eastern Kansas. My father is Jewish and was the first Jew to get tenure at the University of Kansas. In those days there were zoning laws that were very restrictive as to where blacks and Jews could live in the town, so my parents bought a house in the country, which was wonderful for my brothers - four brothers, three younger, one older. It was great, uh, I don't think I'd want to live there as an adult, but as a child it was really wonderful. I went to a two room country school and all that..."
Kansas in those days however was scarcely a hotbed of radicalism of any kind, certainly not feminism; "My father grew up in New York and he never really adjusted to the mid-west - he certainly never adjusted to not having a building superintendent to call in when things went wrong - but my mother's a good ole midwestern girl and in the midwest in those days girls grew up to be mommies. And if they were going to work they were secretaries or schoolteachers. My father insisted when I was 16 that I get secretarial training, so if I didn't marry I could support myself. Well, I won some scholarships and went to the University of Kansas which had always had a tradition of education for women. And there I fell under the influence of a rather radical Dean Of Women. I think a lot of parents, like my parents, their sons they would send away to expensive Eastern schools but their daughters they'd keep close to home to see they didn't come under evil influences. Ironically enough we couldn't have had a more radicalising influence than this woman who had made it her life'S work to electrify Kansas women."
"That was my first introduction to feminism, at the University of Kansas from '64 to '67. Under her leadership I chaired the first university commission on the status of women and got involved in a lot of research on wage and salary issues. It was in '64 that the Civil Rights Act was passed, banning discrimination on grounds of race or sex, and later, first under Johnson and then under Nixon, surprisingly enpugh, there were several executive orders that really put some meat into it. I came to Chicago first in 1966 to work on an inner city summer project and then moved back permanently in '68, I worked for a small firm that did conferences on affirmative action and how to implement it in universities and corporations, that kind of stuff."
So she arrived in Chicago just in time to catch the city at the most turbulent point of its recent history, when the civil rights movement exposed the degree to which segregation in Chicago, bastion of the Democratic north, dream destination for millions of Southern blacks, made the Southern variety look half-assed. In particular the western suburb of Cicero earned itself a reputation as the most racist township in the whole USA, a place that Chicago blacks had learned to avoid at all costs. "I was here in the summer of 66," PAretsky remembers, "when Martin Luther King came to Chicago, marching for open housing, I was working in a white community on the south east side, a blue collar Lithuanian community, which happened to be where the King march went, and I think it was my active involvement in that community which made me want to move to Chicago. I didn't have any sympathy with the racism, but I also felt that... these blue collar workers who had put their life savings into one thing, their little bungalow, voted for Mayor Daley routinely, nobody cared if they lived or died, certainly Daley didn't - he never did anything for thewm, it wasn't like his home ward where people got patronage jobs abd that kind of thing - these people were left to rot, for all anybody cared, so I could sort of see both sides of the issue. On the other hand it was a predominantly Catholic neighbourhod, the local Catholic church could get 4,000 people to mass on Sunday, the Sunday before the march the pastor preached in favour of open housing and the Sunday of the march they had 200 people instead of 4,000."
THis neighbourhood, known as Hegewisch, is where Paretsky chose to set V.I.Warshawski's roots. And in the fifth Warshawski novel, Blood Shot, she returns to those roots to discover, amongst other things, something of what she loved in the place and more of why she left it. In Paretsky's Hegewisch men range from the violent to the broken, women from the strong to the stubborn
This is where we're headed after lunch. We take the inevitable expressway that carves through the middle of the huge south side ghetto. Off to our left are endless housing projects, high rise blocks where the youth get their kicks by sniping from the upper blocks at anything foolish enough to move around without a tank for protection. There was no need for the projects to be built, Paretsky tells me, but here was profit in it, and Chicago runs on graft. Daley proclaimed it the housing of the fuure (God help us all if he was right) and Daley's friends got richer. Business as usual in a city where corruption is merely routine. "This is Chicago, last year the chairman of the Cook County Board, who has a tremendous amount of importance and patronage, a man in his 70s, appeared in a news story. It wasn't even a scandal, just a news story, about how he was having sex with women in exchange for them getting jobs on the Cook County payroll. So the next meeting of the COunty Board he got a standing ovation. People thought it was wonderful that old George could still get it up in his 70s, and that was the limit of the political fallout. This is a city where it really doesn't matter what you do. The Mayor of Milwaukee practically had to resign his job because he had attended a $100 a plate lunch when he was a council member, given by somebody who was a lobbyist for the city. People in Chicago were just rolling in the streets. I'm not going to pretend it‘s any different to that in the resolutions of my books. V.I. is not capable of changing that, she's only capable of doing some very small things for individuals."
Turning off the Expressway on to Stony Island, we head south into a jungle of heavy industry and its side effects. The road degenerates into a heavily potholed track, and we bump around, dodging flying trucks as we head through an an area of landfill, grey grass covering God knows what kind of chemical waste, towards Dead Stick Pond. Dead Stick Pond is a key location in Blood Shot. V.I.is left for dead there while investigating a local chemical company. It's a bleak enough place, looks like a location for a film set in the immediate aftermath of nuclear war. What amazes Paretsky is that despite its devastating man-made inhospitability rare birds still come here to feed.
So too do people hang on in Hegewishch, just a little way north and east of here, the place that provided the labour when all around here was the hub of American industry. Now that the States has given up on manufacturing; American capital preferring the Pacific rim where noone hears of union organising. Hegewish remains as a dormitory community bereft of a place to go in the daytime. The potholed streets are lined with little wooden-frame bungalows, bargain basement American dream homes. Paretsky points out one of these, on Houston St and painted yellow, tells me it's the one she imagines as V.I.s childhood home
Heading back northwards on I 41 along the lakeshore fringe of the south side we're on our way to Paresky's home in Hyde Park. Along the way we pass the South Shore Country Club, a Gothic tribute to Boss Daley's ego, a symbol of exclusivity in happier days for the area. Now it's semi-derelict, given back to the people and today it's deserted bar a few black kids playing crazy golf. As we're driving I ask Paretsky what she reads, "books about people surviving in extremity", she says, "I want to be prepared for being taken off to a camp". And suddenly she is talking about her father, who is Jewish, and was a hard man to his family. His hardness she feels was born out of the sense of futility brought by knowledge of the holocaust; "this probably sounds really pathetic, but I think that the guilt of those who were never in the camps is something people should be aware of."
This is the kind of heavyweight territory that she would like to explore in her writing. Whether such ambitions are compatible with writing detective fiction is something that is starting to bother her. Particularly as she has recently signed a contract with Dell that is considerably lucrative but commits her to writing several more VI Warshawski novels: "I've been writing nearly my whole life. I learned to read when I was 4 and I've sort of been writing since. It took a long time for me to think about writing for publication, and it's still kind of an awkward issue for me. I'm going through a fair amount of personal conflict right now because writing for me was always something private. It was a way for me..." she pauses here, suddenly looking almost stricken, "I hardly know how to say it and I don't even know if you care, but writing for me was a way I could develop some personal space for me inside, a way of buffering me against the world around me. Now my books are getting pop-ular and I write under contract. And I've found that writing under contract has destroyed the personal aspect of my work and I don't really know how to fix that problem. I worked for many years for this large insurance company and I wasn't economically dependent on my work and in a way it was much better. Its nice now, not to have to work downtown, but on the other hand I'm not independently wealthy, so to pay the bills I sign these contracts..."
Ironically too, and maybe here is something of the truth about writing, she has also got far far better as a writer even as the thrill has gone. Burn Marks, the latest in the Warshawski series, is a modern thriller that neither begs nor needs special pleading. It's as good a Chicago novel as has recently been written, certainly it compares favourably with anything lately produced by the man who lives opposite her but never says hello - a professional pessimist by the name of Saul Bellow, a man who neatly symbolises for Paretsky the smug American literary establishment.
Home for Paretsky is in Hyde Park. Hyde Park is a strange enclave in the south side poverty. Its raison d'etre is that the University of Chicago is set squarely in the midst of the south side around 57th street; and Hyde Park is essentially the area between the University and the lakeshore. For a long time it was a lone beacon of integrated housing in Chicago. It is still integrated today in a toney kind of way, not only Saul Bellow but also Jesse Jackson lives here. And it's more than pleasnt; it's leafy, it has second-hand bookstores, it has students on bicycles, it has a little VIctorian style carriages that ferry tourists around, and it has some quite remarkably pretty buildings. One of the prettiest of which is lived in by Sara Paretsky, her husband, Courtney Wright, who is a physicist at the University, and their dog Cardhu. Inside the house has been painstakingly restored to is original American Gothic glory. Courtney, who has lived here for years and is responsible for most of this restoration, offers me a glass of sherry while Paresky goes to run off a copy of an autobiographical piece she has just written for an anthology.
The piece is a straightforward and moving account of the difficulties of becoming a writer when your childhood, spent on a farm in Kansas and occupied almost entirely by schoolwork and looking after her two younger brothers, has left you with two distinct impressions; one that as a woman you don't measure up - hair too frizzy, body too ungainly, ergo you're a tomboy and two that as a woman your creativity should be confined to the making of cakes and babies:
Male writers such as Sartre and Bellow have recorded knowing early in life that their destiny lay in literature. Bellow knew he was "born to be a performing and interpretive creature," Sartre that he was born for words. I call myself a writer but feebly, without conviction. Where did they get this sense I wonder? Were their childhoods spent like mine?... Was Jean-Paul or Saul's first responsibility to look after the little children - to spend summer vacation and evenings after school taking them for walks, changing their diapers, feeding them, reading them their stories?
Now Paretsky has a talk to give on women crime writers, so she arranges for Courtney to give me a ride back to the hotel. Driving north along the lakefront we pass the various Chicago Museums and the Art Gallery with all the Impresssionist stuff in it, which is, as they say,a must for every visitor. I express my eagerness to go visit all these places while suffering the sinking feeling that comes from knowing you're the kind of person who given the choice between whiling away an hour in a sports bar or a major art gallery will take the sports bar every time. Courtney is charming, some way older than his wife and keen to talk about England, his parents' birthplace. He drops me off at the hotel, I thank him for the ride and he's gone before I realise I'm still clutching Sara Paretsky's map of Chicago in my hand, an accidental souvenir.
Part Two: Eugene Izzi
In the hotel I make a couple of decisions. One, I want to change hotel, two I'd better hire a car. Tomorrow for all that, though. By the time I've had a bath and made some phone calls, it's time go out and take a look at Chicago after dark. Clark Street, says my guidebook, is the place to go for chic young things so, hell, I'm on my way.
On arrival, however, there is less than a good deal happening - a couple of discos outside which congregate brattish sixteen year olds tying to look 21, no bars, and several restaurants which look to better prospects for posing in than eating. Still I figure that a man has to eat, so I decide it's time to treat myself and head into a plant be-decked, nouvelle cuisine-ish kind of place, where I have a perfectly pleasant meal, interrupted only by the attentions of Craig. Craig being the name, assuming he was telling the truth, of the guy serving me my food, a chap with a hairstyle ruffled just so. Craig made a succession of fine contributions to my index of sycophantic waitng practices with such gems as, when taking away my first course, informing me that the chef was even now working on my next course. Yes well, I should fucking hope he is; if he wasn't working on my second course then maybe that would be news. Then, after the obligatory ceremony of the admiration of the English accent, comes Craig's big scene - the moment at which I bring out my credit card to pay and he spots that we have, gasp, the same surname. That's Williams incidentally, not Cholmondley or Krzywycki, but Williams. There's no holding Craig back now, clearly we are soulmates and Craig is ready to reveal all. Actually he's not really a waiter but... an actor. Well, goodness, gracious me.
One whisky sour in a bar down the street, populated by business student types who have discovered that with a CD Jukebox it is possible to put on a whole side of The Doors' first album as often as you like, and I realise I'm dead on my feet.
In the morning I once more consult my guide to getting by in the USA with not much of the green, and discover that Chicago suburbs are recommended for cheap motels provided you have transport. Which is how come, having rented another car - some kind of Toyota - I happen to be headed for the western township of Brookfield, Illinois. How come I then found myself driving due north up Broadway is harder to explain. The result of my sense of direction being around 90° out, was that on a Broadway corner, up towards Uptown, I ran into the aftermath of an outburst of gang warfare - blood all over the street, cops wandering around and people standing around looking grim. It turns out that the blood belonged to a black sixteen year old called Marlon Wade. He was leaving a party with a group of friends when an Hispanic gang showed up to continue some kind of feud with some black guys at the party. Marlon was no part of it, but he was the one ended up dead when one of the Hispanic gang decided that these guys leaving the party would do, and opened fire on them. Couple of days later there's a memorial service at Marlon's school. His granmother says, 'If I could have two things, that is to let Marlon come and be here for five minutes. The other I'd want is the one who killed Marlon... I'd hug him and tell him just what I told Marlon, 'Son, I love you.'"
Whether this level of Christian forgiveness will be practised on the street is another matter. Marlon's friend Timothy Dodero is quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying of the Puerto Rican students at another high school, who were believed responsible for the attack, that, "they will just as surely feel the pain." Already Hispanic students are staying away from Marlon's high school, afraid of retribution. And so it goes on in a country where high school students can take advantage of the inalienable right of each and every American to arm him or herself to the teeth.
Having mentally and physically reoriented, I take the expressway out due west to the Brookfield Zoo slip. Out here it looks like semi-countryside, prime susburbia, but it turns out that the hotelI'm looking for is a little further on. A litle further on and I'm out of Brookfield and into Lyons, which is some way less salubrious. What Lyons is mostly is a bunch of gas staions, truckstops and flea-bitten motels strung along Ogden Avenue, a not what it used to be type of thoroughfare. One of these motels, The Pioneer, has its name in my book. So blind faith tells me that it can't be as bad as it looks (i.e. mean, peeling and grim as all get out). It looks deserted and semi-derelict, ready to cater to transient ruckers from hell; the note on the office door says ring and wait. So I do and, after a while, a Shelley Winters type emerges from the recesses. I ask if she's got a room for me. She looks at me for a while and says 'sorry, son, bu we're all booked up, got a convention coming through tonight. Which is, I guess, a polite enough way of saying 'son, believe me, you do not want to stay here. It is cheap but there are reasons for that.
Then she tells me that there's a nice place a little way down the road, and with the relief that comes from not being allowed to do something you were dreading, I head on down. The nice place turns out to be the Chalet Motel, a little piece of Chicago that is forever Switzerland. That is if Swiss motels habitually offer you a room called The Warm-Up Hutch, complete with a hot tub (nudge), king-size (nudge, nudge) water-bed (nudge, nudge, nudge), 'your own VCR for relaxing pleasure'(elbow in your ribs) and two Tvs (two TVs? Why?). The brochure on the check-in desk suggests you consider taking a 'leisure retreat' in the Hot Tub. Presumably 'leisure retreat' is salesman speak for 'piece on the side who your wife will never find out about because you've taken her to a motel in Lyons, for God's sake.'
I decline the once in a lifetime opportunity to stay in a Warm-Up Hutch and persuade the man with the booze-stricken face on the desk to check me into a regular room. After a few lengths in the tackiest, not to say smallest, swimming pool I've ever seen it's time to get back into Chicago central,eat some original Chicago pizza at Pizzeria Uno and go shopping. Shopping takes me back to Clark to the first of a string of bookstores that leads me northwards back on to Broadway, where the blood is still in the road but the police have left. Further into Uptown I park under the sign of he big old Uptown cinema, a classic piece of Cine Deco. Everyone around here looks lost; this is where the Appalachians and Native Americans tend to wind up in Chicago, the country people who've found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Take a picture of the Uptown cinema and the folks lying on the pavement beneath and you could call it the Home Of he Blues. Probably someone already has. Urban deprivation stil being a favourite magazine topic; providing it's sufficiently photogenic, of course.
Hard by the cinema is a used book and record store called Shake Rattle And Roll. Inside I run into a couple of blokes who work in a record shop in London. They're here to buy up the jazz and soul records that America has discarded but attract the attention of collectors in London. So the rest of the day gets spent with Mark and Alan taking in some record stores and ending up in Delmark Records, just north of the Loop, where I buy a Chet Baker LP and Alan spots veteran jazzman Eddie Harris hanging out, gets him to autograph an album. Then it's on to Chicago landmark foodstop Ann Sather's for a classic hamburger, to a sports bar near Wrigley field to watch a ball-game and drink Leinenkugel, a moderately unpleasant beer from Minnesota, and back out to the Chalet Motel, fighting sleep all along the Dan Ryam Expressway.
Back at the Chalet Motel the previously empty parking lot is now full of motors of the kind bought by people who believe a car should say something about you. 'I'm a complete bastard' in most of these instances. Morning comes around and none of the caras are there any more. Strange huh?
Eugene Izzi has the kind of logical explanation I was afraid of... "Jesus, how come you're staying out here?" he asks, 'Lyons, Jesus, this used to be a hell of a place around here". Turns out that Lyons wwas for years the wide-open town that every major city likes to have adjacent, the place just outside of the city limits where all the bad stuff can happen - the gambling and the whoring and the and so on - and the city fathers can tut tut, shrug in despair, and leave well alone. So Lyons was an all night kind of a place where all-night kind of activities could be indulged in. By day, too, it was none too far from the Sportsman's Racetrack. And of course, what with one thing or another, this made Lyons a popular hotspot with businessmen of an I-talian persusaion.
All this Eugene Izzi, the hottest new name in American crime writing, tells me as we walk out of the hotel lobby to the spot across the road where he's parked the first fruit of his sudden and dramatic literary success, a brand new Lincoln. Big as a tank and quiet as a mouse, this is the state of the art vehicle for the man who has come up the hard way, and is sure as hell going to get the car he dreamed of when he was a kid, not some candy ass environmentally sensitive Euro-pean type car.
Izzi is somewhere in his thirties. He's wearing an old army jacket and his characteristic pose is hunched up, hands in pockets, fifties hoodlum style. The effect is to make him appear slighter than he is. In fact he's a solidly bult six footish type with workout muscles; man likes to box. He has the confidence that comes with six books in three years, two of them currently under production as movies, but he's some way off flash. He may drive a Lincoln but he's still in his army jacket and says, "you see this shirt, John, pretty good huh? Cost me seven dollars."
We decide to head towards Downtown Chicago, driving all the way along Ogden, the scenic route. A mile or so down the road we cross the Des Plaines river. Izzi tells me about a paedophile named John Gacey who dumped a binch of bodies there, as an overflow after dumping 33 in the basement crossways from his home. This being a guy who was known as the life and soul of the party; a contractor, a clown, a Democratic precinct leader, got his picture in the papers with Rosalyn Carter. "You never know", says Izzi, "I've got a book coming out called Invasions, in which I really go into what creates a monster. We create them. American society creates them. We turn our backs, pretend it doesn't happen. After the deal came out with Gacey suddenly all the neighbours knew there was something wrong; the same people who were going to his parties and drinking his booze and eating his food. Henry Lee Lucas is another one, this is something that could have been stopped at the source. Before this guy was a teenager he was killing animals and having sex with their corpses. It's hard for me to believe that nobody noticed and even harder to believe that nobody did anything. He begged 'don't let me out of prison', but they let him out... now he's copped to about 300 murders. The bad guysin King Of The Hustlers started out ase kids who used to hang up in trees and put little nooses around birds' necks. I caught some bum raps on that but, you know what, I knew guys who used to do that."
It's not only guys who go out and murder a shitload of children that Izzi sees as psychopaths; "I think most organised criminals have psychopathic tendencies. There was a major mob boss in Chicago named Sam Giancarna(?). He was rejected from army servise during World War Two. They said he was a raging psychopath - and in World War Two they were taking people with one eye!"
Ubsurprisingly this attitude, coupled with his belief, clearly expressed in a book like Bad Guys, that while the law may be corrupt, there are still good guys and bad guys, and that bad guys, specifically Mafia bad guys, are scum who need to be wiped out, has failed to endear him to the Honoured Society; "I made my opinions on the mob clear in the first four books. Now its time to move on. I paid the price for it, I get phone calls, I have to change my number every few months. I just moved house, this car's registered to a PO Box, my driver's licence relates to a different address... I cover my tracks. There's a difference between paranoia and caution."
Driving down Ogden we pass some spectacularly dubious nightspots including a steak'n'cabaret joint done up as a castle, with crenellations and all, before passing through Cicero , blue collar Italian, a faded industrial suburb, once a byword for racism and still probably not a good place for a black man to buy a used car after dark.
After Cicero we're inside the Chicago City LImists and we've gone from blue collar white to black and Hispanic ghetto. The near west side around Douglas Park is simpy despairing. In Paretsky's latest Burn Marks, V.I.Warshawski is scared half to death to visit a witness around here and it's easy to see why. Buildings are burnt or boarded up, fortified or derelict. Storefront churches and liquor stores are about all that hangs on. As we drive Izzi starts talking about the legacy of the Reagan years on racial poitics in America; "When Reagan was elected I worked in a steel factory. I was working with this black guy, seemed intelligent enough to me, and one day he says to me about Reagan, 'you know why a man that age has got a full head of hair? It's so you can't see the 666 on his forehead!' There's a culture there believes Reagan was the Beast, the Devil, keeping black people down. The last mayor, Gene Sawyer, had an aide who was putting out tapes fpr Farrakhan's church, making the statement that the Jews were injecting the AIDS virus into black children as a form of genocide. On the other hand I can show you neighbourhoods where you say 'black guy' everyone says 'nigger, rapist, thief,'. Nobody individualises."
I mention the killing in Uptown the day before and he talks about the way black on black killings are seen as barely newsworthy while black on white killings are horrorshow headlines. Then he tells me that he has been up all night wriitng some stuff set in Uptown. 'Did you know Andrew Vachss lived in Uptown?" He asks. Vachss is a New York child abuse lawyer who writes thrillers featuring a survivalist P.I. involved mostly in child-linked cases. I'd already mentioned to Izzi that I'd interviewed Vachss before and was scheduled to meet him again when I got to New York. It turns out that Izzi and Vachss are very close, Vachss had in turn mentioned me to Izzi. and was, I suddenly realised, the man who had first mentined Izzi's name to me. I said I didn't reaise he'd lived in Chicago, "Yeah",says Izzi,"he was organising there with Saul ALinsky years ago." Which is fairly serious popular radical credibility, and further evidnece of Vachss' uniqueness amongst thriller writers. Of which more later.
I asked Izzi what other writers influenced him; "The biggest influence on me was Elmore Leonard. I was writing this serious art shit until I read City Primeval which I think is probably the best crime book ever. I realised then that if a book is good the art comes. The Gigi Parnell character in Bad Guys is a homage to Clement Mansell from City Primeval", then, without the tell-tale pause that too often accompanies this kind of statement, he adds, " naturally not as well done." When Leonard was in Chicage for a book signing Izzi wanted to get one of his signed. Too embarrassed to go along himself he got a friend to go. Now he's really pleased because Leonard had heard of him, sent his best. "When you reach that level people either become stone assholes or very supportive", he observes.
Izzi is genuinely modest about his writing, is amazed that anyone should put him up with the big names, the Leonards and Higginses. Partly this is because he hasn't been at this game long enough to slip into any kind of arrogance, but also it is an attitude that seems to be common to those writer whose backgrounds determined that, as Paresky put it, they never saw themselves as being writers, certainly not professional writers. Certainly, of the writers I've met so far, it is Izzi and Haywood and Paretsky who have the least sense of themselves as 'writers'. Izzi goes on to tell me that while he hit with his first published novel, The Take, it had been no easy road: "I was broke until '86. For the last three years I've supported myself writing, the first ten I did it for free. I started writing seriously in 77 when I got married. I had won an award in the third grade for writing, I came from poverty and that was he only good thing that I can remember from school, the one time the teachers tried to encourage me. Now I'm scared if I stop writing I'll lose it."
Now Izzi is starting to realise that having come up the hard way has its benefits. In contrast to the Tom Wolfes of the literary world, Izzi's research only needs to be done at the top end of the social scale; the lower end is just as clear as can be in his memory; "I know my people. They aren't cartoon characters, everybody's a composite of people I've met. Panther Payne (sadistic slobbish rent-a-sidekick from King Of The Hustlers) is an example of a guy - who's still living so I don't want him suing me - he pulled up in this car one time when I was a kid, I was standing on the street outside the pool hall. Sothis maniac's looking at me, he smiles, throws what I assume is a cigarette out of the window. It was one of those cherrybomb deals, it lands right by me in the alcove. I thought I was deaf. The guy that was driving hit the brake, and there's four guys sitting there waiting to see what I was going to do, I didn't do nothing, looked away. Many years later, I'm about 26/27 drinking in a bar, the same guy who is now a junky comes in this bar which is owned by a guy named George. He wants to sell me a hot television set, I say no, you got anything real, you think I'm going to do seven years over a TV set?. I took my drink to the john and suddenly here he comes - ba-doom he hits me. That wound up in the book. Naturally I had him killed off in the end. The real sonofabitch, he's still living."
By now we're closing on Downtown and suddenly Izzi swings the car north, "OK John, now I'm going to show you a place". The place is a housing project named Cabrini-Green. I tell him I've heard of it, the place has its own kind of fame, even had a rap record dedicated to it;
Everything is mean inna Cabrini Green
If you've been to Chicago, the near north side
Here's a piece of advice, man, just down ride
In a bus or a cab down a street called Division
If you do ride thru you made a very bad decision
You walk across the black top, you prolly get shot
You're bleeding to death but the cops won't stop
Cause youre just another victim of black killed black
And another black death and they like it like that
One of my best friends got shot in the back
While trying to get out of Cabrini Green shack
Sang lead vocals for Electric Force band
He never gangbanged, just took the mike stand
I never will forget my friend Larry Potts
Or the terrifying night when he got shot
(Sugar Ray Dinke - Cabrini-Green)
Cabrini Green is a housing estate set amongst a collection of road junctions and rail lines. It consists of several medium rise blocks - fifteen storeys or so, set in a square. For at least the first couple of storeys of each block the windows are broken or boarded up. In the middle is a bit of scrub grass where we park. Izzi keeps talking; "Cabrini Green is supposed to be the baddest of the housing projects in America. The west side is very bad, the south side is a terrible ghetto area, but for concentration this is the worst there is. People live here. They're niggers now because they're raised like this. It's not fair, it's not right, it's not only immoral it should be illegal. To put people in sardine cans like this and expect them to grow up to become brain surgeons! To these peole we're either cops or drug dealers. There are three or four gangs that patrol here. At night I wouldn't bring you here, wouldn't bring the car here, though a couple of bullet holes might give it character."
This time of the morning the place is yesterday's battleground. On a wall someone has spraypainted the name Arise. That's the name of the white trash gang in King Of The Hustlers. Izzi thought he'd made it up. 'Hey', he says, 'hey'. Meanwhile nothing's happening, which is OK by me as there's nothing I can imagine happening here that could be good news.
So we get back in the car and head eight blocks west along Division Street. The great Chicago institution Studs Terkel, radio broadcaster, writer and maybe the best interviewer of 'ordinary people' alive, wrote a book called Division Street USA which uses the street as a stand-in for America. It's not hard to see why. Eight blocks east of Cabrini Green and we're on Astor Place, the classiest street in Chicago, lined with VIctorian town mansions. Given the right wind you could hang-glide from a Cabrini Green rooftop to an Astor Place lawn. We walk round the back of Astor place and the alley is covered in graffiti, the walls topped with razor wire, keep the wolves out.
Izzi tells me how the Hollywood folks who are making movies out of The Take and Bad Guys came out to Chicago. "There were some guys came here scouting locations for one of the movies, I took them to Cabrini Green they'd never seen anything like it. They go 'What are those holes'. I say 'those are bullet holes, what do you think?' and they go 'lets get out of here'." Which, in turn, is farther than William 'French Connection' Friedkin, the director of Bad Guys, managed. He wouldn't even venture into the Astor Place alley; "I tried to get Friedkin out here. I said 'come out and walk with me I want to show you the alleys'. He said 'Guy, even when I was a kid I saw myself in mansions, not alleyways'. I knew right away we were not going to get along."
From Astor Place we take a walk, wandering through Chicago's Gold Cast, a neighbourhood that Izzi, who's from far south Chicago, down Hegewisch way, says he barely knew existed before he started researching the last couple of novels. He talks constantly about the price of the houses; 'you know they spent four and a half million just on renovating this house, John, four and a half million!". Then we head up towards Lincoln Park, to take a stroll along the lakeshore. Izzi says that walking is the only thing that will keep him awake walking. He hasn't slept at all, just worked all night. Usually he sleeps in the day.
Up to now Izzi has been cagey about talking about his background. Recently a Chicago magazine ran a piece on him as a literary freak, a criminal turned novelist and he's really unhappy about it. Now he's keen to stress the marginal nature of his criminal career; "I've been known a time or two in my life to spend a night in jail, but never any serious time or any major problems. Still I know what it's like to get beat up by the cops, I know what it's like to be in place where I'm not supposed to be, where I could definitely lose a piece of my life if I got caught. In the days before I got married nothing mattered."
But now he seems satisfied that I don't simply want to focus on sensationalising his life story and the barriers start to come down when I ask him how he got to here from Hegewisch: "Hegewisch is economically falling apart because the steel mill has closed. I worked im the mills for years. I was considered a parttime guy till I got lucky with the writing. There when people lose their jobs, they don't lose their pride. People round here lose their jobs, they're jumping out of windows. You know what money does it takes away your money problems, that's all. I was a very happy man after I quit drinking, being with my family. In '83 drinking had me so bad, my wife Lisa left me, took the kids, wouldn't let me see them. I lost the apartment we were in, I wound up sleeping on the floor of a barber shop. I would wash his windows, and the guy would let me sleep in the back toom, his toilet, I was slepeping in his toilet. I decided that's enough, I quit drinking and we got back together. Up to that point I had done some things, stealing things, stuff like that, I said if I'm going to be straight, I'm going to be straight all the way. We rented a house from a friend of mine, behind it there were some woods. I'd go out there with an axe and chop down the little trees for firewood and go down the streets selling the firewood. That supported us, Jesus, for a year till I went back and got a regular job again."
Now Izzi lives out in the suburbs in a nice detached house with burglar alarms and dogs to keep out the bad guys and woods where he can run when he finishes writing for the night. Hegewisch, meanwhile, is a place he had to get out of; "I got together with a guy from Hegewisch, hadn't seen him for 15 years. We put our heads together, came up with 30 people we knew had died violently or from drugs. That seems a little high." One of the dead was a guy named CHarlie, Izzi's best friend in his teens; "I got out of the car, ten minutes later he was dead. That's what taught me not to make friends. Fact is I like my dog more than I like most people."
Izzi's passionate belief is that your background may be crucial but it need not be decisive. Like Andrew Vachss, though, he believes that a vast amount of criminal behaviour is rooted in the abuse of children. He tells me about a dinner he went to recently with a cop friend of his, where some politician started talkin about the gangs as the city's number one crime problem; "I'm much more concerned about the guy down the block fucking his kid in the ass than I am about guys with colours on their heads kidnapping people off the streets - which I just don't believe is happening anyway. And I don't believe the big problem is drugs, either, shit I was 12 years old seeing junkies. But if we could just stop the abuse of children I tell you 75% of crime would stop."
Linked to this is Izzi's big hope for his writing; that maybe the kind of book he writes ('If you want symbolism go see a Bergman movie, I make it as simple as I can') may get read by the kind of people he used to be and will, just maybe, make them make some connections; "There's even a possibility I could make a difference, not yet but down the road. WHen I reach my potential..the first books wre light punched, jabs, but if I get as good as maybe I can get, somebdy might read that and say 'Hey this is the way it really is. Like I was in the 4th grade looking around and thought how come nobody else has got a black eye? Nobody else has got broken fucking leg? Then it dawned on me, other people aren't beating their kids! That was a big revelation to me. Later I was in the army and I got overseas and found out that not everyone's a drunk, not everyone's a vicious fucking... my father was in prison a lot and that was a relief to me, when he was out he used to terrorise us."
"I think I was married a year before I told my wife I loved her. Up to that point I thought it was a scam that people who had stuff made up. Now I want to dispel some myths, I want to let people know that you can overcome this shit, you're not stuck. I was 29, John, I really believed I was too old to change. I thought I'm stuck I'll never see my wife, I'll never see my kids. I may as well go and fucking die."
Suddnly we realise weve been walking for miles, up past Belmont Harbor, so we turn and head back towards the car. I'm dying for a cup of coffee. So Izzi says 'OK I know a place'. Eventually we wind up on Michigan, Chicago's swankiest shopping street, and we head up into the Bloomingdales shopping mall; the kind of place which has some guy in a lounge suit tinkling away on a Steinway to entertain the shoppers as they take a croissant and a breather in between deciding which set of Louis Vuitton luggage to buy for their cats. It's the kind of place that tends to feature in Izzi's books. Generally being turned over by some Italian hard guys from Hegewisch.
Back in the Lincoln we're driving down Wabash or maybe Ohio. We pass a hostel and Izzi tells me about a black guy, no legs, lives there, gets about on a cart, guy with a lot of spirit. Other week a bunch of so-called gangbangers decide to have some fun; they flip him off his cart, rob him, rape him, beat the shit out of him. 'That's about as cold as it gets' says Izzi.
By now he's visibly exhausted. And we quietly retrace our route back to Lyons. He leaves me with the inevitable Hollywood story, Eugene Izzi style; "Staying in Hollywood, I was going up to my room and this fella says, 'shall I send up a girl?', and I say 'no', and he says 'how about two?', he's being tough, impressing me, I say 'no thank you, I'm not into that', he says 'oh, oh, a boy'. I say 'no, I just want to be alone'. They think I should be grateful, they think they're giving me something by offering me flesh that I never met before. It's enough to turn your stomach. Thank God it's taken so long before I got to this stage or I'd be into that, that's the kind of man I was. Miserable, oh God was I miserable, always thinking about suicide. Staying in that barbershop, at night I'd be spinning round in a chair eyeing those razors - if I get drunk enough it won't even hurt. Thank God I didn't. Look what I would have missed, My God, I've got a woman who loves me, I've got kids who actually want to grow up and be like me. At night when I finish working I go out, run a couple of miles, then I come back, see the trees, see the house, see the Lincoln..."
And that's it. Izzi heads home to get some sleep. I pick up my stuff from the hotel and head on out to the airport. On the way I listen to Studs Terkel's radio show. At the end of the show he signs off like this; 'Take it easy, but take it.'