Monster Roster

Last Wednesday night I was sitting by the door at the Skylark, reading my book as I often do, when a guy came over from his barstool to ask what I was reading. This happens a fair amount and most times, after I show them the cover of the book, they nod and walk away. This guy thought a moment, then said, “I don’t really read.” I told him he wasn’t alone, that he was probably in the majority. Hearing this, his face brightened, “Really? I’ve never heard anyone say that. That makes me feel better. Thanks!” He told me how his step-mother, who’d been in his life for twenty-five years, was a voracious reader and would sometimes offer him a $100 to read one of her favorites, but that he never took her up on it. I said he should—a hundred bucks is a hundred bucks—and he said he just might one day. Then he walked back to his girl and his beer.

A little later, when they were walking out, the guy brought his girl over and told her what I’d said and how it made him feel good. That he wasn’t alone. “You used to read,” she told him, but he just shook his head. He smiled and thanked me again and they left.

The painting above wasn’t done at the Skylark but at Bernice’s, over a few afternoons. This beer cooler is stocked a little differently every time I come in, so every time I’d come back I’d have to adjust the painting. Parts of each afternoon I spent on it remain so it becomes a sort of record of several pieces of time spent in one place. This is one of the things I’ve always liked best about painting, that it’s a way to mark many moments all in one small space. 

This is a view of my street from my studio window. It’s got virtually nothing to do with the Monster Roster exhibit I wrote about for the Reader, aside from also taking place in Chicago. Neither does the Martin Puryear show at the Art Institute, which I also wrote about and highly recommend.

Myopic Troublemakers

Myopic Books in Wicker Park is one of my favorite bookstores. It’s not just because they’ve sold more of my books than any other store by a wide margin, but that certainly doesn’t hurt. Aside from being one of those places where you can just drift and go on tangents, which are rarer and rarer in our ever more “searchable” reality, it is also a place which sometimes hosts music and poetry nights. 

A couple weeks back Skyler Rowe, who I know from the Rainbo Club, performed what he called “a tantrum” on his drum kit and various electronics. Things like this can be precious or navel-gazing but by creating a lot of sounds in varying volumes and timbres, Skyler kept my attention and interest. He was also humble and gracious to his audience, the very fact of which seemed to surprise him. It’s often hard to get anyone to come watch you do your thing, so it’s a good feeling when they do. 

Last weekend at the swanky restored Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, Myopic Books manager J.R. Nelson was interviewed by Tim Kinsella for a new podcast. They talked about J.R.’s childhood fixation on Peter Jennings and his many years of writing about music. These fancy new hotels like to invite art people inside to entertain their well-heeled guests. I’m happy when talented friends have an audience but sometimes these gilded settings give me pause, but I suppose it has always been so. I wrote about a new documentary about land art for the Chicago Reader. See it in a movie theater if you have the chance as the aerial views which dominate will be a lot more impressive on a big screen. Then talked to my old pal Nick Digilio on his radio show at 3am, after a work shift at the Skylark.

—This weekend the Chicago Tribune published my review of Oleg Kashin’s newly-translated Fardwor, Russia! 

In 2010, two months after turning in his manuscript for “Roissya Vperde” to his publisher, Oleg Kashin was approached outside his Moscow apartment building by a man with a bouquet of flowers. That man and an accomplice proceeded to beat Kashin with a pipe, as well as their fists and boots, and left him for dead. Two of the men (a driver has also been identified) have been charged with attempted murder, but those who ordered the attack have not been held accountable in any way.

Kashin is a prominent anti-establishment journalist who has not been shy to call out those in power. He has identified the man he believes to be responsible, but Vladimir Putin’s government has shielded him from prosecution.

Now comes the English translation of Kashin’s book. Rechristened “Fardwor, Russia — A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin,” it is a brisk read that will nevertheless leave one with a disquieting picture of contemporary life in that cursed country.

The plot concerns a man named Karpov, who, seemingly on a whim, moves with his wife from their Moscow home to a remote settlement in the south of Russia. He has discovered a miraculous growth serum and is convinced that, given time to further experiment, they will become rich beyond their wildest dreams. He attracts the attention of the locals, most prominently the director of the local scientific institute, who has been casting about for a “something” that might net her some serious government investment. Karpov initially spurns her offers of cooperation, but after several troubling misadventures, returns to the institute just as she is showing a government representative around and telling him of the wonders they work:

“And this,” she said, gesturing in the direction of tables painstakingly detailed with magic markers showing two glued-on, Xeroxed pictures of some kinds of birds — a diagram that illustrated how with the right diet a jay can turn into a cuckoo. “Now don’t be surprised, I wouldn’t believe it myself if not for the work of our scientists. It’s all very simple. We are what we eat. A cuckoo eats these, you know, furry worms. A jay doesn’t eat them, but if we force it to — voila!”

With a single injection piglets grow into sows within a week. Local meat purveyors are intrigued and word quickly spreads. Soon a dwarf is at Karpov’s door demanding the serum. This dwarf turns out to be the younger brother of an oligarch, who has thus far managed to keep his freakish brother in the shadows. When he returns two weeks later to Moscow and presents himself to his brother as a fully grown man, ready to take part in their family’s empire, the older brother has him killed.

Absurdity is piled upon absurdity, but none of it is taken as anything but a matter of course by anyone involved. There is a long tradition of this sort of storytelling in Russia. From Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” in pre-Soviet times to Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” and onward, writers have had to address the insanity of their society through indirect or fabulist means. “Fardwor” is no fairy tale. Kashin grounds his story in everyday reality. Karpov finds out his wife has left him because she has unfriended him on Facebook; the oligarch, Kirill, is named to head the organization charged with making the upcoming Olympics in Sochi a success. The world of his book is not so different than the one seen from his countrymen’s windows.

There’s rarely a way to reproduce the slang and colloquialisms of another tongue. While “Fardwor, Russia” is a more-than-adequate translation, the original Russian title — “Roissya Vperde” — has the added resonance of sounding very much like “Russia’s in the Crapper” (if using family-friendly language). Despite that, the book is a hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of a country whose demons rarely pause in tormenting its populace, as its author found out before it was even published.

Straight Into the Camera

From 1978 to 1979, photographer David Gremp documented the neighborhoods of Chicago. He was hired to be an artist in residence for the Chicago Public Library system under the auspices of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). Signed into law in 1973 by Richard Nixon, CETA was an extension of the WPA, but emphasized state or local programs over federal ones. Gremp was given free reign to take pictures as he wished. In the brief wall-text which accompanies the exhibit of his photographs at the Harold Washington Center, “Straight Into the Camera” (through May 15th) he writes that he didn’t get to know his subjects very well. Often he didn’t even know their names, but he asked all of them to look straight into his lens. He shot hundreds of rolls of film. Now a couple dozen of those faces stare back at us from the walls of a room on the 9th floor of the library. Some of the more compelling ones don’t feature any people at all.

The pictures are grouped by neighborhood. In Ashburn, three nearly identical bungalows are framed together. The longer you look, the more small differences appear. The shape of the walk, a bush rather than a tree by a window, each little detail serves to set one house apart from its neighbor. On a sign outside a brick house in Pullman, a gospel minister offers classes in soul-winning, but also notary services, as well as lecturing on unspecified subjects. In Lincoln Square, the window of a barber shop advertises ‘friseur’ service while reflecting the Korean characters of the sign across the street. In South Lawndale, two tough-looking women guard the doorway of Bonnie’s Tavern. They’re framed by gang graffiti on the brick facade to either side of them.

I thirst

for justice

and I

hunger for

my rightful


—reads the shirt of a woman in Uptown, the lettering almost lining up to the carwash sign against which she’s posed. A black kid with a fro smiles big from the window of a newsstand in Chinatown.

Seen together these pictures are a window upon the city as it once was and in many ways still is. Though some of the signage and fashion is of its time, much of the architecture and many of these faces are still recognizably our own. Good photography is able to simultaneously act as both time capsule and mirror. Though Gremp’s Chicago is over 35 years old, I could walk its streets and not get lost.