Mike Royko uses "like" where the rules call for "as," he insists on writing "hopefully" when he means "I hope," he employs punchy, one-sentence paragraphs of the sort that went out of journalistic fashion at least a generation ago -- and only the fussiest grammarian is likely to give a hoot. Royko has been a civic treasure in Chicago for so long that he has finally become a national treasure as well, and his occasional stylistic lapses are of little moment by comparison with the wit and fervor of his prose.
"Sez Who? Sez Me" is a collection of several dozen columns written by Royko over the past decade, first for the Chicago Daily News and then, after it went out of business, for the Chicago Sun-Times. Though some pieces are considerably better than others -- the columnist who bats 1.000 has yet to be invented -- on the whole, the collection is vintage Royko, which is to say a textbook example of how to write with one's fists.
Though Royko is a big deal in Chicago, his stance is that of the little guy. His villains are aldermen, bureaucrats, wealthy athletes, narcissistic celebrities and New Yorkers; his heroes are barflies, cab drivers, ward heelers, struggling mothers and Chicagoans. He loathes people who abuse their power, whether they be presidents who drop bombs in Asia or bus drivers who harass their passengers; he admires people who try to make the most of what little they've been given, who keep an eye alert for the welfare of others and who are able to laugh at the lumps that life delivers.
There's ample potential for cliche' in all this--a dash of Runyon, a teaspoon of Breslin, a shot of Winchell -- but for the most part Royko avoids it. True: From time to time he slides into the sentimentality that used to be the big-city newspaper columnist's stock in trade, and he can take a singularly simplistic view of events that take place in the larger world outside Chicago. But when Royko is at his best, he makes mincemeat of the world's ample supply of hypocrisy, pomposity, pretension, charlatanism and faddism; when it comes to bursting bubbles, he is a past master.
Royko on trout stream fishing: ". . . that is the most snobbish, effete, overrated fishing there is. It's the kind of fishing for which you get dressed up in tweed clothes and try to look like David Niven or Ray Milland. You even wear a tweed fedora covered with artificial gnats and fleas, which you use as bait."
Royko on Jimmy Carter's overhaul of his cabinet: "I realize that the shake-up has deep and significant repercussions in Washington. The replacement of five cabinet members signifies a profound change in the seating arrangements at dinner parties. It has far-reaching implications for the social coverage of Washington papers. It signifies a devaluation of an invitation to a cocktail party attended by Joseph Califano."
Royko on Jane Fonda: ". . . I'll even work for her for $100 a week. I'll write a touching movie script about a movie star who becomes a great moral leader, but suffers tragedy in the end when she vigorously nods her head in agreement with one of her own thoughts, and her brain falls out of her ear."
Though Royko's own writing lacks elegance, he has a keen sense for the abuses others commit against the language. A column about the tongue-twisting prose favored by the bureaucracy of public education is devastating, as are his reflections on that woefully abused and misused word, "relationship." The latter led him to rewrite a few popular songs in light of Me Generation usage. To wit: "Fish got to swim and birds got to fly, I got to have a relationship with one man till I die; can't help relatin' to that man of mine." And: "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's a relationship. When the world seems to shine like you've had too much wine, that's a relationship."
Royko is funny, but he rarely writes merely to amuse. Ridicule is his most effective weapon, which he uses to harpoon all those persons or institutions -- and there are many of both -- that violate his notions of decency and civility. Though he often writes about boozers, tough guys and Good Time Charlies, he is at heart a conservative son of a conservative city, a man who believes in old-fashioned ideas about honor and responsibility, and who uses his column to defend them. Sometimes his stance as the salt of the Chicago earth seems to become a pose, but more often than not his humor and his anger are absolutely genuine; he has been at his trade for a long time now, yet he remains remarkably fresh and original.