This may surprise you but I don’t like saying bad things. Going negative doesn’t make me happy. I never turn on a movie or open a book hoping to hate it. I may be a masochist sometimes but I don’t go looking for pain. That’s why reading Adam Levin’s horrible Mount Chicago opened such a can of worms.
The reviews I write these days primarily run in the Chicago Reader. The way it works is I look through lists and reviews of upcoming books, then pitch ones I’m interested in writing about to my editor. It’s a lot easier to get her to bite if the book has a local connection. Almost a slam-dunk if it actually has the word ‘Chicago’ in its title. This may smack of parochial homerism but I didn’t set these ground rules. I’ve just learned the hard way to live by them. The paper I write for is for locavores, so I must keep our toddling town front-of-mind if I want my byline to keep running.
Fortunately for my editor, any mention of Chicago is blood in the water to me. I’ll read or watch or listen to pretty much anything that mentions this city. It’s as close to home as I’ve ever had and I will never stop being grateful. There are times though when this blind love blows up in my face. Like this Levin book. I don’t know what possessed me to pitch a review other than that ‘Chicago’ in its title. I haven’t read Levin’s previous two novels and the short stories I did read left no impression one way or the other. What made me think I’d like this new one?
It went bad from the start. After my editor gave the green light, I spent a fruitless month trying to get anyone at Penguin Random House to answer an email, much less send a copy of the book to read. I’d given up and moved on when my editor forwarded a pdf she managed to pry loose from that monolith. So I was now stuck having to read and write about the book after thinking I’d been spared.
The first thing that struck me was a weird typographical flaw. Every few pages a word would have one or two letters missing. These could be in the beginning, middle, or end of the word and occurred in no discernible pattern. I thought perhaps it was some intentional avant-garde experimental technique, but when I forwarded the file to a writer friend who’s close with Levin, he was as puzzled as me. He assured me Levin would be horrified to know a marred copy of his manuscript had gotten out into the world. The more pages I read, the more I began to wish many more letters were missing.
Back when I wrote for the Trib, I had a couple reviews killed. The first, because the editor decided, after assigning me the book, that I had a conflict of interest by sharing its publisher with one of my own books; a second, because she judged it unnecessarily negative. I’ve never gotten pushback like that from any editor at the Reader. I’ve had the occasional disagreement and/or wrestling match over phrasing or reasoning, but that’s as it should be. The only two pieces of writing I’ve written for the paper that didn’t run were killed by me. The first, because of a threatened lawsuit from a lunatic; the second, because I hated the book and didn’t see any merit in shitting on a thing that was clearly a misguided labor of love put out by a tiny press and written by a debut author. There are so few venues left for book reviews of any kind that publishing a negative one has to be thought through carefully.
A hundred pages into this six-hundred-page atrocity I wanted out in the worst way. But I knew my editor had allocated space for the review in a forthcoming issue and I didn’t want her thinking I was a spoiled baby or a flake. I take the job of reviewing seriously. I can’t skim through books or skip ahead because I know what it takes to write the damn things. What kept me going was the knowledge that a major press paid a sum of money I won’t speculate about to put this thing out into the world and I’d been hired—for an infinitesimal fraction of said sum—to judge it.
I took the iPad to restaurants and coffeeshops, complaining to anyone who made the mistake of asking what I was reading. When they asked what was so bad about the book, I mentioned the riddle about why a dog sucks its own dick. This book is like a dog that grew seven dicks and seven mouths to suck each one dry. The unfortunate asker would laugh and carefully back away.
The thing that haunted me the whole time is not what I knew I’d write once I got through reading but what that mutual friend I asked about the weird typos would think. He’s a faithful friend and took exception to a bad review Levin’s first book got years ago. Is sharing an honest opinion worth losing a friend over?
The thing I wrote is out there now. We’ll see if there’s any fallout. I’m just glad not to be reading that damn book anymore.