This past November 10, on a chilly fall evening at Chicago’s Hungry Brain, an accommodating barroom on the city’s near northwest side, THE2NDHAND’s “Let Slip the Pies of War” event brought together some thirty/forty people to hear the stories of five humans making an effort to engage the debate about this country’s ostensible imperial aims. The brainchild of Messers Daniel Buckman and Mike Nowacki, in conference with myself one wet evening at a bar in Bucktown, the night of readings centered around war and politics was the first in what hopefully will become a series of occasional occurrence. Buckman told a messy tale from a nonfiction account of that most famous erstwhile “episode of a worthless use of good soldiers,” to paraphrase his own words, otherwise known as the Confederacy; Brian Costello spun the story of two brothers at violent and comic loggerheads over an upcoming presidential election; Anne Elizabeth Moore baked a pie filled with American tourists in 30s Nazi Germany, reading a selection from her grandmother’s 30s travel diary along with a piece from her PIE, the newest THE2NDHAND broadsheet; and one of the evening’s highlights, former army interrogator in Baghdad Mike Nowacki’s “The General,” featured this week at THE2NHAND.com, ended with the entire room under its spell, a pin-drop silence with the weight of a thousand two-ton dumbbells. Recent events continue to bear out the final message: an ill-conceived “vulgar display of power” can only beget an equally nasty response. Get over to THE2NDHAND.com and read Nowacki’s piece for yourself.
Moving on, Torontonian Howard Akler’s The City Man (Coach House) is a new work of noirish romance set in Depression-era Toronto that, in a classic hardboiled style, tells the neatly intersecting stories of a bipolar journalist and “The Whiz,” a crew of pickpockets. Eli Morenz returns to work on the police beat at the Toronto Star after a period of convalescence at a sanitarium or retreat of an only alluded to nature and struggles to fit back into the working life. Meanwhile, Mona, a younger pickpocket of the Whiz mob, commiserates with her mentor, the hardened Chesler, speaking in a street code — plant your prat, bang a souper — a sexually charged rhetoric (based mostly on the work of linguist David W. Maurer, whose 1964 book Whiz Mob detailed the lingo of the pickpocket subculture), particularly when combined with Akler’s deft description of the quick moves of the Whiz pickpockets: as Akler urged in a recent interview, next time you’re in a crowded space, imagine running your hands along the clothes of the person in front of you. Mona’s vague longing crosses the path of Morenz’s scoop on the Whiz, his ever-widening investigation leading to her door, and as his stories in turn move to the Star‘s front page he and Mona find themselves locked in a highly unlikely coupling, a frank sexual relationship that Akler’s tight prose depicts equally frankly. His adherence to the hardboiled style is at once a detraction, and in the end the story he wants to tell, as Morenz loses his shit and quits his job — after Mona, under pressure from Chesler and other of her pickpocket associates, basically dumps the guy — that of a budding love among two wayward souls, is subverted by the clipped, stylized nature of the prose. In essence, there’s not enough there, really, for readers to grab onto.
It’s a good first novel, though, and here’s hoping Akler keeps at it. Coach House Books in Toronto’s a great publisher, and you can pick up The City Man here from Amazon or from the publisher directly here.
Josh MacPhee is an artist and activist currently residing in Troy, NY, where he moved from an extended residence in Chicago. His former off-set printing press printed issues three-seven of THE2NDHAND, of which fact he reminded me two weekends ago at the Madison Zine Festival exhibition in the Open Book Cafe at UW Madison’s library. Josh is a familiar face to me, yes. And his work is equally familiar — I just never made the connection between the two until that moment, embarrassingly enough.
If you haven’t seen it, his book Stencil Pirates: A Global Study of the Street Stencil (Soft Skull 2004) is worth checking out. Functionally an art book, with near 200 pages of well-reproduced photos of stencils from around the world and accompanying running text, its pages document the stencil’s long road from industrial/administrative marker to propaganda tool to street artist’s mode of choice.
Not much new these past weeks, and for that I’m sorry. Been hard at work getting the word out about our big release party for PIE this Thursday (November 10 @ Hungry Brain), also on a host of book reviews for upcoming issues of the Chicago Reader. This week, two of them appear: one of Mark Crispin Miller’s Fooled Again, about the 2004 election, and a history of rotten elections in American by Andrew Gumbel, Steal This Vote. The excellent review of Matt Taibbi’s Spanking the Donkey is by friend and colleague Brian Nemtusak. Give them all a look here (scroll down to p. 29 and 30): www.chicagoreader.com. Hope to see you Thursday.