Chicago's first black mayor figures in Adam Langer's new novel
You can hear the admiration enter Adam Langer's voice when he talks about Harold Washington, the former Chicago mayor whose legacy looms large in the author's new novel, The Washington Story.
"I was writing about the '80s, and I was trying to figure out [what] was important to me at the time," Langer says. "Washington always seemed to be there."
For Langer, raised in West Rogers Park, the city's first black mayor became a symbol for his native town. Langer believes Washington was on the verge of uniting Chicago when he died of a heart attack in 1987.
"We were really on the cusp of something, and then he died too soon," he says. "Everything fell into disarray; there was no real heir apparent. Life wasn't predictable."
Picking up many of the characters from Langer's heralded 2004 debut, Crossing California, Washington is set against Chicago as it was between Daley mayors: a heady time when Chicago elected its first woman mayor (Jane Byrne), then Washington, and both the Cubs and Sox came within a few games of the World Series.
Venturing beyond insular West Rogers Park, Langer's characters find this unpredictable world to be a jumble of possibility and disappointment. California—a canvassing narrative that ties together the tensions of several Northwest Side families—is a tough act to follow, but Washington more than lives up to its predecessor. The pop-culture references remain, as do a plethora of shout-outs for Chicagoans. But there are differences, particularly in the book's structure. Eschewing the scattershot format of California, the sequel follows a more linear path tread by a slightly smaller cast.
Jill Wasserstrom, the impassioned radical of California, puts her politics to work as a journalist. Muley Wills's films carry him into school at the Art Institute. Michelle, Jill's effusively talented sister, begins work as a professional actress while their father, Charlie, becomes a best-selling author. Larry Rovner, prog-rock's true prophet, sees his music adapted for Broadway, and Mel Coleman sees his gangster flick, The Godfathers of Soul, through production.
Like their native Chicago, the novel's characters are all on the cusp of something, forcing them to look both forward and backward at once. The result is intense, reflective and, like California, very funny. Even the most ridiculous characters are full and complex.
"I'm very much sympathizing with them when I'm writing and trying to see things from their point of view," Langer says.
This is the compassion of Isaac Babel and Sherwood Anderson. It allows Langer to make fun of his characters without being cruel, and to sympathize without sparing them from disappointment.
"A lot of the characters are kind of searching for something beyond themselves," he says. "Most of them wind up not getting it."
Langer insists this doesn't make his work sad, or, at least, not only sad.
"I hope that if you're true to human experience, at least as much as you can be, then you'll have elements of comedy and tragedy," he says. "And if it's too much one way or the other, maybe you're not being truthful."
Some of California's more colorful characters, like wanna-be auteur Coleman and Muley's braggadocio father, Carl "Slappit" Silverman, are given greater prominence in Washington. Still others who were central to the first book recede to the background.
"I wish I could say there was a grand design to it," Langer says. "I don't know what I'm going to write before I write it."
Langer's next book won't be set in Chicago, but will be "another interlocking comedy of different sorts of characters," set in the present day. Langer, who splits his time between New York and Bloomington, Indiana, assures us that another installment in the West Rogers Park series will come eventually. Washington ends in 1987, leaving Langer little wiggle room to explore the Chicago of his youth.
"What interested me about the '80s, or at least the stuff I'm writing about, is there's a great feeling of unfulfilled promise there," he says, "of things that seem like they're almost about to happen, and then they don't quite make it."
The Washington Story ($24.95) is out now from Riverhead Books.