December 2012

Mary Mann

nonfiction

You Were Never in Chicago by Neil Steinberg

Chicago has been the "Second City" since 1952, when A.J. Liebling dubbed it as such in The New Yorker. There is some pride to the name -- second place is a serious contender -- but it also rankles to be second best, and Liebling received bushels of hate mail from Chicago residents.

Neil Steinberg has taken one of the original responses to Liebling's essay as the title of his latest book, You Were Never in Chicago. Part history and part memoir, this book takes the reader on a tour of the Second City through time and space, often drawing parallels between the city and Steinberg's own life, from his arrival in Chicago from Ohio as a student at Northwestern to his eventual role of columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. He explores what it means to be a Chicagoan through his own experience of being an outsider who married a born "city girl" and made a career out of getting to know the grande dame of Midwestern cities: Chicago.

The book begins and ends with Steinberg's role as an interloper: first as a literal newcomer to the city, and then as someone who -- because of the value of long-term connections in Chicago -- will simply always be an outsider. "Nobody knows my parents, nobody has heard of the high school I went to, I'm obviously a Jew," he explains matter-of-factly. On the plus side, this outsider status gives him both impetus and allowance to go hunting for the city's secret and forgotten corners to sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes hilarious effect. The chapter "Annals of the Paper Tube Trade" is one of the best, as Steinberg explores the strange workings of the factories that call (or called) Chicago home, including Jays Potato Chips and the Chicago Mailing Company (home of the eponymous paper tube trade).

Steinberg also takes the reader on a rollicking tour of Chicago history, writing with engaging fascination about the famous characters who've made the city home -- from jazz great Louis Armstrong to mobster Al Capone to celebrity columnist and talk-show host Irv Kupcinet -- as well as those on the margins that play just as much of a role in the reality of Chicago, such as prostitutes, crack babies, and owners of failing businesses. He has an eye for the tiny details, the quirks that turn a regular Joe into someone to remember and bring celebrities down to a human level. In the chapter "A Visit From the Angel Nacht," he briefly sketches some of the obituaries he wrote and why, and almost all seemed worthy of their own book: Steinberg would excel at biography.

Indeed, Steinberg is at his best when exploring and explaining the weird and wonderful people in his adopted hometown -- his pen seems to fly along the page in these intervals, and the reader is happy to glide along with him. It is unfortunate, then, that the great weakness of You Were Never in Chicago is Steinberg's voice when he turns the pen on himself.

Self-deprecation is a tradition in personal nonfiction, and it is a skill that Steinberg -- at least in this book -- lacks. From Montaigne to Hazlitt to Dyer, writers are either disorganized or judgmental or anxious, and by owning this in their writing, they gain the trust of the reader. Steinberg comes close to this kind of self-reveal at times but consistently steps back before going all the way toward emotional honesty. He admits that feeling smug about knowing the city is behind his urge to give directions to visitors, then shies away and says that actually he does this "mainly because I'm a nice guy and want to help." He laments that he has few friends, yet one can't blame the colleague who doesn't want to socialize with the guy who writes about his post-paternity-leave promotion in this self-aggrandizing and contemptuous way: "Something all those focused, gerbil-on-a-wheel, don't-lose-a-step career climbers ought to keep in mind: sometimes you win by walking away."

This difficulty in making friends is a liability, as Chicago through Steinberg's eyes is an endless web of human connections and cronyism perfectly described by the Mayor Richard J. Daley-era quote: "We don't want nobody nobody sent." By and large, Steinberg paints his own relationships as cold connections (the only exceptions being his brother, a tragic and likable character, and his wife, who largely drops from the narrative after the couple has children). That is until the entrance of Ed McElroy in the third-to-last chapter, "Driving With Ed McElroy." The older, fatherly McElroy is the first real friend of Steinberg's that the reader meets. Seeing Steinberg admire someone else (whom he's not related to) is somewhat redeeming. It also makes his answer to "What makes a Chicagoan?" more believable: "Knowing people is the difference between being here and belonging here."

This is Steinberg's seventh book and his fifth memoir. This reader closed You Were Never in Chicago wishing that he had put aside the memoir this go-around and focused on the history. He has a wonderful eye and ear for the city he calls home, but setting himself beside the Second City can only have the effect of making Steinberg look smaller.

You Were Never in Chicago by Neil Steinberg
University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 978-0226772059
256 pages