I went scouring for reviews of David Mamet’s new novel “Chicago” immediately after turning its last page, mainly because, 1) I’m not a critic, and I wanted to see what others had to say about this strangely literary yet gritty crime story set in 1920s gangland Chicago, 2) I desperately feared I missed something; a lot, in fact, and 3) I had to see if anyone out there — anyone — thought the dialogue at all genuine, or thought anything of it at all.
As it turns out, though I’m sure I missed some things (a lot, in fact) in what is really little more than a highly atmospheric “whodunnit,” I got the general idea.
The dialogue … whew, that was something else. That was the difficult part. And the book, it should be pointed out, is positively packed with dialogue, between the protagonist Mike, a hard-drinking newspaperman at the Chicago Tribune and a wise hooker; between Mike and his hard-drinking, opium-doing best friend and fellow ink-stained wretch Parlow; and between Mike and various gangland contacts and cops.
A lot of dialogue, of course, is fine. Well done, it can reveal and invigorate a story.
But Mamet, who may be most famous for the 1984 play “Glengarry Glen Ross,” treats much of his dialogue like soliloquy, like Alec Baldwin (in the 1992 film of the same name) chewing out a bunch of salesmen.
It can be compelling, and telling. Epic, even. But is it believable? Does it need to be?
Mamet’s dialogue in “Chicago” is so dense at times, so unapologetically gristly, that it can stop you dead in your lip-reading. Critics have called it “Mamet speak,” and they mean it as a compliment. Certainly, wading through it can give you — or, it gave me — a sense of accomplishment. It’s chewy, sure. But it can be damn tasty.
The Los Angeles Time called “Chicago” — the book, mainly, but probably the dialogue, too — “linguistically rich.” Ron Charles in the Washington Post says this in his review: “Although the characters in David Mamet’s new novel, “Chicago,” never sound like real people, they always sound like David Mamet people, which is a strange indication of his success.”
Later on, Charles says, “If nothing else, this dialogue makes good prep for the SATs.”
The Chicago Tribune, the real-life home the novel’s Mike, calls the book, “energetically linguistic.”
You get the idea. You’d get the idea in a second, reading dialogue like this, a bit from Parlow on how to recognize the “blue-stockinged reformers” and Prohibitionists of the era:
“By their pinched and disapproving mien,” Parlow said. “By the awful though expensive cut of their clothes, proclaiming at once their superiority to earthly things, and their financial ability to so hold; by the fare before them, consisting if not of actual raw vegetables, then of some substance equally sad; by the set of the women’s noses and the effeminacy of the men.”
Maybe newspapermen spoke that way back then. Maybe they still do. I sure haven’t met any like that. The ones I’ve run up against in my journalism career can be hard-drinking and foul-mouthed, like Mike and his colleagues, sure. But I don’t know if I’ve ever run into one that used the word “mien” in speech.
“Mine,” all the time. “Mien?” Never.
Here’s the city editor, Crouch, talking about the business:
“A newspaper is a joke. Existing at the pleasure of the advertisers, to mulct the public, gratifying their stupidity, and render some small advance on investment to the owners, offering putative employment to their etiolated, wastrel sons, in those young solons’ circuit between the Fort Dearborn Club and the Everleigh House of Instruction.”
Mulct. Etiolated. Wastrel.
Don’t come to this book without Merriam-Webster in hand.
This says more about me, I’m sure, and my lack of a — whaddya call it? — a vocabulary than it does the author, who is considered by many, and probably rightfully so, a great American writer. I realize that. I accept that. As I said, I’m glad I slowed down when the dialogue got particularly tough, and stopped at the words I didn’t know in the book (which happens to be Mamet’s first in two decades).
But, jeez Louise, that was a lot of emergency braking. That’s unusual for a whodunnit, I’d think, a genre which generally contains “page turners” that you “can’t put down.” Still, to Mamet’s defense, his style is admirable.
You want answers? I’ll give ’em to you. On my damn terms.
(The “it” in the whodunnit, by the way, refers to the murder of Mike’s Irish girlfriend, a figure we barely get to know. In fact, Mike and Annie’s relationship is, as Mamet writes it, hardly some love story for the ages. Still, her death pushes Mike into a period of self-loathing and, finally, a dogged search for the killer.)
The question of “who” finally is wrapped up, I might also point out, in about a graf (that’s newspaper talk for “paragraph”) of exposition late in the book, perhaps left there by Mamet with a tinge of compassion for those of us who had fallen behind.
I could try to touch on the themes in this book, about love and loss and friendship and duty and all that, but I think I’ve made this clear enough: I’m no critic. I probably missed a lot of it. I was, unfortunately, too busy looking up words and dissecting dialogue.
Instead, I’ll leave you with this goofy video of a real-life critic to explain things. For whatever it’s worth, I can’t tell what he thinks of the book, either.