It’s hard to think of a writer of his generation who has more defined the American male’s perception of himself, for better or worse, than David Mamet. This is perhaps not the best period in our history to be that person, but it makes his writing particularly noteworthy. The 1992 film adaptation of his play, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” has become the fountainhead of so much male bonding vocabulary that we’ve wearied of the “Coffee’s for closers,” “Third place is you’re fired,” and, of course, “Always Be Closing,” that each generation of fraternity boys and young financial service professionals seems to discover anew. By now, aided by the ascension of a salesman absurdum to the highest office in the land, generations of young men speak these lines as gospel instead of satire. Mamet’s new novel, “Chicago,” is as linguistically rich as “Glengarry Glen Ross” — in fact, as any of his previous work in any medium.
In its scope and ambition, “Chicago” feels like one of the great American male novelists of the late 20th century — Updike, Mailer, Bellow, Roth — trying his hand at writing a genre novel. But unlike those novelists’ somewhat less sure-footed lunges —Mailer’s “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” and Updike’s “Terrorist” come to mind — Mamet lands this with aplomb. This is high genre, a 1920s gangster story, that manages to entertain and engross. That the story is occasionally complex to a fault is an irrelevance. “Glengarry Glen Ross,” remember, was about a break-in at a real estate agency.
It’s hard going from writing for the screen or stage back to the page. Most of those who succeeded started out writing books — Mario Puzo, Richard Price, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne — and then return. "Narrow margins," my father, Josh Greenfeld, who went from novelist to Oscar-nominated screenwriter and back, used to say when asked what he was working on. "Screenplays were, in the self-depracatory code of his conversation," Didion wrote of my father, "either 'the tab key' or 'wide margins.' " (This was decades before screenwriting software obviated the need to set your own margins.)
Novel versus screenplay
Which is harder? There are certain facts that cannot be disputed. A novel, usually, is many more words than a screenplay or stage play. More words mean more typing. More typing usually means more work, but in the many drafts and revisions of a dramatic work, it could all even out. (As for those who argue that revision is as hard as facing a blank page, I call b.s.) As a novelist who is just now making the transition to writing for television, I can say this: Somehow, you feel much more alone writing a novel than you do a dramatic work, if for no other reason than the implication of collaboration in the latter. With a novel, if you’re lucky, there’s an editor somewhere who will suggest fixes for egregious errors. The purpose of a screenplay, on the other hand, is to elicit collaboration from directors, actors, producers, etc.
And I’ll say it again, more blank pages mean more chances to lose your nerve, to face writer’s block, which Mamet dismisses in “Chicago” with cynical flourish: “I don’t understand writer’s block,” an editor at the Chicago Tribune says to his reporter, “I’m sure it’s very high toned and thrilling, like these other psychological complaints. I myself ... could never afford it.” The men in Chicago don’t have much time for “psychological complaints.” Nor do the women, who, by the way, sound just like the men. That’s the noir convention. The dames in Raymond Chandler’s books were also as dictionally indistinguishable from their gumshoe colleagues.
Mamet’s ear for the dark poetry of the American male id fuels “Chicago.” His dialogue here is as sharp as any of his stage plays, and he is unique in that he finds or creates the lyricism that we all like to imagine exists in the patois of every class. I don’t know if cops, criminals, florists, lawyers and hookers spoke in the Woody Guthrie-esque American verse that Mamet writes for them, but it is a perquisite of high genre writing to give a cop, a Sgt. Doyle of the Chicago Police Department, this couplet with reporter Mike Hodge, of the above mentioned Tribune.
“The Chinese,” he said, “invented gunpowder. And used it, just as we do now, to foil the evil spirits.”
“The question is, then,” Mike said, “what is evil?”
“Well, that is decided,” Doyle said, “by the fellow holding the gun.”
If I’m going to quibble, it takes a few pages too many for the stakes to reach the table. The story, however, is almost incidental, it’s a laundry line for great prose. For purposes of being fair to those who read book reviews seeking the utilitarian: “Chicago” is a murder mystery, in which newspaper reporter Hodge uncovers who killed the love of his life. Hodge serves as cicerone through 1920s Chicago, as the killing has him making inquiries to both the Irish and Italian mobs — there’s an Al Capone cameo — cops and numerous hookers with black hearts of gold. This results, ultimately, in a frame up and insurance fraud of such complexity that I imagine Mamet himself got tired keeping track of it. At a certain point in the book, like a runner exhausted after a few miles, he just walks the narrative blocks in easy-to-read exposition, kindly keeping score for the reader, if you are so inclined to care about the resolution.
Mamet is openly nostalgic for that era of newspapermen in cahoots with gangsters and cops, reporters spending more time at the local speak-easy than in the newsroom, and when they were in the newsroom were drinking from bootleg bottles of rye. (And, none of them were women.) Before joining the newspaper, our protagonist flew for the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. The Great War flashbacks are lovely, e.g. Hodge’s memory of a shot-down, captured German officer sitting by the stove of a barn: “All the American fliers recognized his state; and all knew not that it might be, but that it most likely would one day be them, their disgrace and captivity the marginally better of the two outcomes of their continued flights.” The German pilot calls Mike over, and, ashamed, gives him his concealed Luger pistol. Mike understands: The pilot was planning to kill himself but now lacks the courage.
The pistol, it turns out, is what matters, years later, to the story.
Mamet’s Chicago is a brutal world, lovingly described, where the cure for alcohol-induced delirium tremens is opium — another addiction — and the cure for a broken heart is to kill the man who caused the leak, and then discover you feel no better for having done the deed. It’s as if Cormac McCarthy had decamped from Southwest to Midwest. Here’s an African American madam describing to Mike how her brother met his end (Skip this quote if you’re weak-stomached), “The thing in those days was stump hanging. They would take and nail a man’s privates or, as we say, ‘dick and balls’ to a stump. Using, it came to hand, rusty spike, A railroad spike ...” and it gets worse from there. These are damaged people, from that downed German fighter pilot all the way to the poor bounder who finally takes the bullet that proves no salve for the vengeful. And the protagonist is a hero as flawed as the villains, taking punches, emotional and physical, and getting up again. Heroism, ultimately, in Mamet’s Chicago, coming down to sheer will.
There’s a detail he lays in, a historical fact, that though the Armistice to end World War I was signed on Nov. 10, due to some officer caste preference for symmetry over human lives, hostilities were to cease the next day, at the 11th day of the 11th month, at the 11th hour. A further directive was amended, Mamet writes, “No unit or individual is to cease from combat until the hour of the Armistice.” Men died in that one day between the signing of the peace treaty and the commencement of peace. Many men. For no reason. Or, even less reason than the day before. That’s an absurd brutality as great as any Mamet could conjure in his Dante-esque Chicago of the blue-collared, verbally adroit. And his point in including that detail, if I may take this liberty, is to say that imagine any cruelty you can, and the world has already outdone you, many, many times over. So I doubt generations of future angry white men are going to find in “Chicago” much to inspire their capitalistic avarice. But I did find myself pouring a glass of whiskey while I was writing this review, for Chrissake.
Karl Taro Greenfeld is a writer on “Ray Donovan.” His next novel, "True," will be published in June.
Custom House: 352 pp., $26.99