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A corrupt, cynical world as only David Mamet could imagine it

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet's new novel "Chicago" is nothing like the musical. (Video: Ron Charles/The Washington Post)
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Although the characters in David Mamet’s new novel, “Chicago,” never sound like real people, they always sound like David Mamet people, which is a strange indication of his success. We would recognize these guys in a dark alley, not from any actual experience in dark alleys but from “Speed-the-Plow,” “American Buffalo” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” plays that have explored 86-proof masculinity for decades.

In “Chicago,” Mamet returns once again to the city where he was raised and where he started to work in theater. The novel also marks a return to the Prohibition era of “The Untouchables” (1987), Brian De Palma’s gangster film for which Mamet wrote the screenplay. But what’s striking is how little difference the time makes. Past or present, Mamet’s men must always contend with the rapidly changing currents of the day. The moment you hear Mamet working in 1920s Chicago, it’s obvious that this bullet-ridden era fits him as comfortably as a newsboy cap. Yet he’s often felt like an on-the-money writer, catching the zeitgeist even before the cigarette smoke clears the room. Remember that “Oleanna,” his deeply unsettling play about sexual harassment, opened just months after Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court. And now, while releasing this novel set 90 years ago, he’s working on a script about recently disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

“Chicago” is not overly inconvenienced by the actual history of the 1920s. “Received chronology,” Mamet notes at the opening, “has been jostled into a better understanding of its dramatic responsibilities.” (Leave it to Mamet to be more responsible than God.) But if this isn’t the exact history of Chicago, it’s still the city you think you know. Italian and Irish gangsters rule competing halves of the town. Al Capone makes a cameo. With alcohol illegal and ubiquitous, the city government is an institution of organized influence peddling. Every crime scene is picked over by sticky-fingered policemen shopping for their wives and girlfriends.

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The professional narrators of this roiling city are the intrepid reporters of the Chicago Tribune, men — all men — wholly devoted to the truth of a good story. These are writers and editors who sip romanticism at home but chug tankards of cynicism in public. “Idiosyncratic expressions of self-loathing” are reflexive for these guys.

If you know a male journalist — present, former or aspiring — give him this novel. It’s full of wry advice like, “If one can afford it, but one has nothing to say, one should not write. That is not writer’s block but common courtesy.”

“A newspaper is a joke,” the city editor declares. “Existing at the pleasure of the advertisers, to mulct the public, gratifying their stupidity, and render some small advance on investment to the owners, offering putative employment to their etiolated, wastrel sons.”

If nothing else, this dialogue makes good prep for the SATs.

“Chicago” focuses on two daily scribes “debauched by journalism”: Parlow and his best friend, Mike, a flier during the Great War still haunted by the carnage he witnessed. They’re both men of deep sentiment but “jaded unto death,” constantly ready to mock any wisps of sentimentality. “It was the reporters’ daily job to be brash and unfeeling,” Mamet writes, “to steal the photo portrait of the slaughtered infant from the mother’s bureau; to taunt the spouse murderer into an interesting outburst; to withhold pity for the youth sentenced to death. It was their job to be not only brave but foolhardy. Covering the shootout, the school fire, the flood, the train wreck.”

When the novel opens, Mike and Parlow, along with Chicago’s bloodthirsty readers, are fixated on a pair of assassinations involving the owners of Chez Montmartre, along with a mistress and her maid. But even while Mike pursues that story, he’s seriously distracted. Like a fool, Mike has gone and fallen in love with a young Irish Catholic lass named Annie, a woman of “shocking virginal beauty.” That he’s not Catholic is a barrier he’s willing to surmount, though he suspects Annie’s parents will be less accommodating. For sure, he knows that if they find out they’ve been sleeping together, he’s a dead man. But before that theory can be tested, someone bursts into his apartment after an afternoon tryst and shoots Annie.

Who this killer is and why Mike has been spared are the abiding mysteries of “Chicago.” But anyone hoping for a hard-hitting thriller will Always Be Closing this book disappointed. Attitude, though, rolls in thicker than fog off Lake Michigan. The whole story is lousy with attitude: grieving Mike trying to drink away his sorrow; confounded Mike trying to understand his survival; vengeful Mike trying to find Annie’s killer.

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He’s assisted in these various moods by Peekaboo, the African American madam at a whorehouse called the Ace of Spades. (“Chicago” is an encyclopedia of early 20th-century slurs.) Hard and philosophical, Peekaboo spins off the kind of aphorisms you’d expect from the African American madam of a whorehouse conceived by a white man with a subscription to HBO. “There’s only one known cure for a broken heart,” she tells Mike. “It’s time; and that don’t work.”

“What gets you killed, more than the next thing, is the inability to let things be.”

Other sections glide along like the winning entry in a Hemingway contest. (Mamet even misspells “alright” like Hemingway.) At its best, this can make for irresistible passages of slick, noir prose: “He had loved his job, and its proximity to violence, which, he knew, was a drug, and he had loved the Irish girl; and now he was sick and grieving in that impossible grief of betrayal at having your heart broken by life.”

But when Mike and Parlow fall into their self-mocking dialogues, the stage suddenly thrusts through the pages, and they sound as gratingly artificial as characters in a Mamet parody:

“What makes you sad about the rich?” Mike said.

“That which makes everyone sad who is not of their number,” Parlow said. “That they are better off than we; and we brave our unmerited poverty stoically, whilst they sail yachts, and indulge in God knows what depravities in boathouses.”

“But do you not also hate the poor?” said Mike. “For they possess no money. Therefore what can they do for me, save impotently rage, because I, occasionally, sport a clean collar? Further, saving always the criminals, they have misunderstood the situation. For, how do they propose to raise their state? By appeal, finally, to government.”

There’s a lot of that winking playacting. If only Mamet had taken the city editor’s advice: “We require bold, clear words and gruesome pictures.”

Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of

By David Mamet

Custom House. 352 pp. $26.99

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