How forgotten is MacKinlay Kantor's "Diversey"? Well, when I looked it up on the
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
Much like the book's hero, Marry Javlyn, Kantor was born in Iowa and came to Chicago to seek fame and fortune as a writer. He was only 24 when the book, his first, was published. The plot involves a Jewish gangster on the lam, a young switchboard operator from the South Side, a prominent newspaper columnist and various lesser characters and types. There's a big love affair, murders, betrayal and poetry. I imagine Kantor threw just about everything he'd learned of the world up to that point into it, but what struck me first and foremost were his descriptions of Chicago. This isn't a mythical or imagined city but one recounted from firsthand experience, from having walked the streets he wrote about.
The story's center is a rooming house on Cambridge Ave., just off Diversey Parkway, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Marry (short for Marshall) arrives in the city and takes a room there. The plot's set in motion when he finds a wallet in the common bathroom on his floor. It belongs to Abe Wise, a tough guy with a gun tucked into his belt. Another tenant, a girl named Jo, is in Wise's room when Marry returns the wallet. In no time Jo and Marry are in love, and Wise is slipping Marry $50 bills to run errands.
The Messenger is Kantor's stand-in for Chicago's newspaper of record. After striking out at the half-dozen smaller papers, Marry turns to the imposing tower on
Unable to find a newspaper job, he takes advantage of Wise's offer of help and gets a do-nothing, overpaid position with the city. This is one of the novel's best parts. The mechanics of obtaining a patronage job as he describes it are funny, horrifying, and — especially for contemporary Chicago citizens — all too familiar.
Hanging over all the proceedings is the long shadow of Prohibition. Much of the violence in the book is committed by warring factions of bootleggers. We continue to live with this kind of violence in Chicago, though these days it's over cocaine and the like rather than Canadian Club whiskey. That makes what happens in this book resonate now.
The book's flaws are those of a young writer overreaching. But overall "Diversey" is a worthwhile link between Theodore Dreiser and
His '20s Chicago has graft, murder and people rushing all over the place just like our Chicago does. Most of all it's a story of a young man coming to the big city and trying to make something of himself, and that's a story that's never out of date.
Dmitry Samarov is a painter and writer in Chicago. His book, "Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab" was published by