By John Wilson
This week we look at coming attractions. But before we get to the main event, some unfinished business: The Worst Book of the Year. That dubious honor goes to Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago, by Alex Kotlowitz (Crown). This is a volume in the Crown Journeys series, an offbeat venture in which writers as various as Christopher Buckley, Chuck Palahniuk, and Ishmael Reed write about a city (or a battlefield—there's a volume on Gettysburg—or some other kind of place) pretty much as they please. The resulting books are all over the map, so to speak: some quite good, some bad, some simply strange.
Kotlowitz, best known for There Are No Children Here, is a substantial writer, and I was looking forward to his take on Chicago, a city I'm still getting to know after more than ten years in the area. This book inverts the formula of many city chronicles from past eras, in which only celebrities of one kind or another figure in the story. Kotlowitz's Chicagoans are labor activists, African Americans from the projects, rattle-the system defense attorneys, and so on, with a pimp or two occasionally strolling by. If you invert a formula, you get another formula, the more unpalatable in this instance because it's served up with smug self-satisfaction. "This is a skewed and incomplete view of the city," Kotlowitz says at the outset. "I won't pretend otherwise." How virtuous of him! What that confession really amounts to, of course, is something like this: I'm telling the real story of the city, and it's the story of outsiders who never appear in the Official Story.
That word "real" reminds me that while for the most part he inverts the old formula, Kotlowitz unaccountably retains the kitschy sentiment that encrusts so much City Writing. Never A City So Real? Is his irony-detector permanently disabled? Our first exemplary Chicagoan—Kotlowitz's father-in-law, it happens—"personified the city, a place eternally in transition, always finding yet another way to think of itself, a city never satisfied." (That sound you hear in the background is John Kass, vomiting.)
But it gets worse, as when we're given a glimpse inside the city's Criminal Courts Building, where
a defendant accused of rape appeared in a black leather jacket with PIMPING AIN'T EASY embroidered on the back. A private investigator who spends much of his time at 26th Street told me, "They're making a statement: 'I don't respect this setting enough to pull out my best outfit.' "
Really? So that's what "they" are saying? I'm making a statement too: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Worst Book of the Year.
Now to the coming attractions. Some of these are in fact already here, hitting the bookstores in January: Martin Marty's When Faiths Collide, a volume in the Blackwell Manifestos series; American Ghosts (Beacon Press), a memoir by the novelist David Plante, long estranged from but still haunted by the God of the French-speaking Catholics in Rhode Island who were his people, the world he left behind; A Year with Thomas Merton (HarperSanFrancisco), with daily selections from Merton's journals accompanied by his drawings.
Anne Lamott is a writer who, though utterly different from Merton, plays a role in the lives of many readers much like his decades ago—an "outsider," to use Kotlowitz's word, inside the church, who says if there's room for me there must be room for you, too, room for anybody. Lamott's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith is due in March from Riverhead. Also due in March, from Harvard University Press, is Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World, by Jon F. Sensbach: the story of unwilling outsiders finding a home in the gospel story.
Sensbach's book will be reviewed in the May/June issue of B&C, if all goes according to schedule, while Mark Noll will review Jaroslav Pelikan's latest, Whose Bible Is It? (Viking), in the March/April issue. Another book not to be missed is George Weigel's The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (Basic Books), which will be reviewed everywhere; ditto David McCullough's 1776 (Simon & Schuster), due in May and must reading for those who haven't overdosed on the Founding.
On the literary front, there's K. (Knopf), Calasso's uncanny reading of Kafka. A collection of essays by the late W. G. Sebald, Campo Santo (Random House), is due in March. I think Wendy and I will read aloud in bed at night from Donald Hall's memoir The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon (Houghton Mifflin), due in May. Before that, we will be drawing straws to see who gets first dibs on the next installment in Alexander McCall Smith's series, the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (Pantheon), coming in April. I don't think Wendy will have any interest in Europe Central (Viking), the latest fiction from the prodigious William Vollmann, but I can count on my son Andrew devouring it soon after it appears in April, so we can compare notes.