‘The End of the Book’ by Porter Shreve: Literary ambition in two Chicago eras

March 28

THE END OF THE BOOK

By Porter Shreve

Louisiana State Univ. 211 pp. Paperback, $22.50

“Winesburg, Ohio,” Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 collection of interconnected stories, famously ends with its young hero, George Willard, leaving his small-town home and heading to Chicago. His fate in the big city is pointedly unresolved: Will he pursue his writing talents, or will he be consumed by the soulless world of advertising?

Anderson’s classic is the linchpin holding together the two halves of Porter Shreve’s excellent new novel, “The End of the Book.” One of the parallel narratives here imagines George Willard’s life in early 20th-century Chicago; the other story follows a young man named Adam Clary in 2009. He works in the Chicago office of the gigantic Imegotech company while also dealing with his contrarian father, Professor Roland Clary, who’s lost his house in the real-estate meltdown.

Both Clarys are frustrated writers. Adam has “that most impractical of degrees: a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing” and hasn’t looked at his 128-page thesis, a “Winesburg”-style series of connected stories called “A Brief History of the Fool,” since he graduated. Forty years ago, his father wrote the well-received first volume of a projected two-volume biography of Sherwood Anderson — and has ever since been stalled on writing “volume two of the great biography that never was.”

Adam works on Imego’s Library Project, scanning millions of books, a scheme like the one that had Google in court for years. The Library Project is supervised by Adam’s strident, ambitious wife, Dhara (“You’re the empress and I’m the serf,” Adam eagerly assures her). But his former sweetheart, Lucy Youngblood, who’s recently taken a publishing job, is alarmed by Imego’s efforts to contain and control the world’s books. When she asks him if he isn’t troubled by the implications of his job, Adam sharply responds, “These days the only readers of so-called literary fiction are other writers: faculty and students, the wandering herd of MFA graduates. . . . Now the critics have disappeared along with book reviews, the masses don’t read, and a ‘writer’s writer’ is anyone fool enough to spend three, five, forty years type-type-typing into the void.” Despite that cynical response, Adam finds himself tempted by Lucy’s attractions, and he’s intrigued by the hints of a novel he finds among his father’s vast, disheveled collection of papers.

Shreve, who grew up in Washington, handles all this so adeptly that I became a bit impatient with the parallel story of George Willard’s dissatisfied work in Chicago’s cutthroat advertising world. Those sections are expertly crafted (a scene in which George takes some important visitors on a tour of Chicago’s stockyards is particularly well done), but they seem almost like distractions from the drama of Adam’s life coming apart.

At one point, Adam gloomily claims that America is “a country where at best a small city’s worth of people — say, the population of Des Moines — read anything approximating literature.” But “Winesburg, Ohio” was recognized in its day as a piercing work of literature, and “The End of the Book” warrants the same. This is entertaining, insightful fiction, more proof that it’s not over yet.

Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.

the end of the book

By Porter Shreve

Louisiana State Univ. 211 pp. Paperback, $22.50

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