Reviewed by Gary Krist
Sunday, March 9, 2008
A Novel of Politics
By Scott Simon
Random House. 419 pp. $25
The Chicago metropolitan area, with a total population of about 9 million people, is now home to more than half a million Mexicans. Another 130,000 residents come from Poland, while 70,000 are originally from India and 60,000 from the Philippines. The metro area also supports significant immigrant populations from Italy, South Korea, Ethiopia, Iran, Guatemala, Nigeria, Syria and who knows how many other far-flung countries of the world. Obviously, to call such a citizenry "diverse" would be to flirt with massive understatement. But as Scott Simon demonstrates in Windy City, his comic but sneakily affecting novel about Chicago politics, all of these wildly assorted peoples have one thing in common: When their trash isn't picked up or their streets aren't plowed, they don't complain to their imam or their guru or their shaman; they complain to their local alderman.
The rich multiculturalism of the American city is not a new phenomenon, and it has hardly gone unnoticed in recent fiction. Rarely, however, has it been depicted with such unabashed affection as in Windy City, a book spacious enough to accommodate a Chinese-Salvadoran wedding, a Baptist church service and a banquet at the Krivas Museum of Lithuanian Civilization.
The plot centers on Sundaran "Sunny" Roopini, the Indian-born alderman from the 48th Ward, who must act as interim mayor when the city's real mayor is found dead in his office, poisoned by a nicotine-laced pizza. No one has any idea who killed the chief executive, who was a charismatic African American dynamo of Rabelaisian appetites. But this proves to be a matter of secondary importance in the novel. More urgent by far, at least to the 50 aldermen who make up the City Council, is the question of who will become the great man's successor. With representatives of so many constituencies competing for power, the political maneuvering soon threatens to get out of hand, and it's all that Sunny Roopini can do to keep City Hall from plunging into outright civil war.
Scott Simon (host of NPR's "Weekend Edition" and author of the novel Pretty Birds) is clearly infatuated with Chicago, and the zeal with which he celebrates the city, warts and all, is hard to resist. His book is larded with insider bonus features that hard-core Chicago aficionados will delight in, whether it's a blow-by-blow description of how Mexican chilaquiles are made or a knowing dissertation on the agony of the long Chicago winter.
Simon's take on the city's aldermen, whom he describes as "the comic relief of politics," is particularly amusing. Relegated to the minor leagues of American government, these intrepid eccentrics nonetheless pursue their traffic lights, community centers and graft opportunities with all the passionate intensity of big-time pols, asserting themselves "desperately and gracelessly, like ducks trying to make love to a football." A typical aldermanic philosophy of government? "You can't be a leader," one of them insists to a recalcitrant colleague, "unless you go along with the majority!"
Windy City is also well-served by Simon's choice of hero. Interim Mayor Roopini is an immensely appealing figure -- witty and unfailingly generous in spirit, despite having recently lost his wife under tragic circumstances. Now the single father of two affectionate but keenly suffering young daughters, Sunny must steer his family through the shoals of grief even as he's trying to do the same for the traumatized city. And if his occasional flights of rhetorical brilliance owe perhaps a bit too much to television's "The West Wing" -- verbal set pieces too clever and elaborate to be credible as spontaneous speech -- I hasten to point out that the improbable eloquence of a protagonist is one of the easier flaws in a novel to excuse.
Whether one can so readily forgive the implausibility of the book's denouement is another question. In real-world Chicago, after all, the city's warring ethnic and racial factions aren't quite as cooperative as they are in Simon's kinder, gentler version. But comic novels often have something of the fairy tale about them. And Windy City, for all its emphasis on the sausage-factory venality of big-city politics, seems intended mainly as a big, sloppy valentine to the cultural jambalaya that is 21st-century Chicago. The Second City has taken a lot of abuse in its day, from writers as various as Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, Norman Mailer and Dave Barry. It's good to see the old place shamelessly flattered for a change. *
Gary Krist is the author of five books of fiction and the nonfiction narrative "The White Cascade." He is currently working on a book about Chicago after World War I.