Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
To send your new book to decomP for possible review, see our guidelines. To find out what’s currently under consideration, visit our review queue.
I overheard this guy on Thorndale once, by the liquor store just west of the El station, this immigrant, obviously, from South Africa or wherever they have that click language, speaking on his cell phone in that click language, clicking away, a popping, tongue-to-palate sound, his face wrinkled up with plenty familiar, weary disgust. Click, click, click, click, he said, and some garbled whatever, and some more clicks, and then a phrase, loanwords, fucking Cubs. Talk all you want about the Founders and their notions, sing out your abstractions—liberty, pluralism, a chicken in every melting pot—but when it comes down to it, here is the whole deal in one fleshy instantiation. My touchstone memory of the American dream—and sure as hell one solid, go-to recollection of what Chicago is and means—is that guy by the shadow of the red line tracks, rattling on in some incomprehensible language and yet being absolutely clear. A shared signification, a commonly held sentiment: click, click, click, click, click, those fucking Cubbies.
Cohen’s book is about another team, but more than that it’s about the city—the city at a certain point in time; the city as an idea, a nostalgic vision; the city as an attitude, a philosophy—and about how that team came to manifest the city, to serve not only as champions (something any professional athletic team could do) but as living emanations of the collective consciousness of the town. These guys, the ‘85 Bears: they were Chicago.
Look at their leader, an exemplar of the Chicago style of leadership. Cohen gives us the facts, telling us about him breaking his hand in a rage, joking about it after; detailing that DUI received after a few too many bottles of wine on a celebratory flight home, the ticket to which, “in a section set aside of ‘comments,’ in letters that actually seemed to slur, he’d written, ‘Fuck you Jack.’” But Cohen uses facts to flavor his work of hagiography; he recognizes that it’s as myths his characters really live. When Iron Mike plucks the gum from his mouth to lob at a heckler in San Francisco, Cohen writes
It was not an ordinary wad of gum but the sort of mouthful chewed by giants. Eight or nine pieces, an entire pack of Bubblicious worked into a fist, molar marks as deep as tire tracks. For a minute, you could see it in the air. Then it vanished into the heckler’s hair. Her head snapped back. She took the impact like a third-world dictator being dropped by a sniper in a town square. The police threatened to charge Ditka with assault. An officer recovered the gum, which was booked as evidence.
If Ditka is a mascot for Chicago, it’s not coincidental that he resembles the mascot of the team he led. Cohen compares him to a grizzly, a Kodiak, speaks of his hair as “the color of a pelt” and airs rumors that maybe he went so far as to dye it the orange of the team logo. On the level of rhetoric, however, is where Ditka most excelled—at least in this, in speaking to Chicago, in speaking Chicago. Chicago is a city that prides itself on an appreciation of violence. Chicago is the place where disorder gets preserved. Chicago is precisely the sort of place where a pep talk like this, from Ditka to the fans, has resonance, echoing all the way back to Fort Dearborn and up, through bloody generations, to the hustling, striving present. In advance of a confrontation with the well-ranked Los Angeles Rams, Ditka becomes a medium, channeling a voice as uniquely and distinctly Chicago as anything Algren or Royko or Hecht or Terkle ever spoke:
“There are teams named Smith and teams named Grabowski. The Rams are Smith. The Bears are Grabowski.” He went on to explain how the Smiths would be coming to the Grabowskis’ house on Sunday, where it’s mean, where it’s violent, and where, in the third quarter, it’s going to snow.
There’s the ethos: clenched fists. The philosophy, voiced in relation to a specific sport but echoing Chicago’s self-understanding: “you’re tired, you grind ‘em, you recover, you prevail,” as Kurt Becker says. Doug Plank compares football to chess, “Tackle chess,” wherein the goal, simple enough, is to get the quarterback out of the game: “Take him out, you win the game.... We’re going to hit that quarterback ten times. We do that, he’s gone. I hit him late? Fine. Penalize me. But it’s like in those courtroom movies, when the lawyer says the wrong thing and the judge tells the jury to disregard it, but you can’t be unheard and the quarterback can’t be unhit.” That’s Chicago, and if you love the city—if you love that valence of it, at least—you’ll want to chase such recollections with a shot, you’ll want to chew on this book some long afternoon when the snow falls and falls on the grid and the diagonals.
Cohen knows that he’s writing a love story, foremost, and that it is an odd sort of love story, the sort that takes comfort in the quaint charm of how friends of gangster Nails Morton, after he got tossed from a horse and killed in Lincoln Park, “brought the animal back to the ill-fated spot and whacked it.” So, yeah, this is a love story about a certain kind of cunning toughness, about sending scouts into the bleachers, about cussing, about what Cohen calls the “ruggedness that still lingers in the mentality of the coach who distinguishes between hurt and injured: injured is broken, meaning you’re done; hurt is pain, meaning get back out there, you fuckin’ pussy,” but for all the talk of the modern T-formation or the 46 defensive alignment, this is a love story that transcends sports, that transcends grit and violence to be—as I would argue all great Chicago stories are, including that one about Nails Morton’s friends—tender. This is a story about Cohen’s childhood, about losses along the way, including the loss of Chicago: “For me, Chicago will always be as it was in the mid-1980s. That was the city as I loved it, the world at noon,” Cohen writes, going on to detail particulars—the tastes, the sights, the names associated with the city—“...Every other place is measured against the city when the world was whole.”
Rough-and-tumble—what Cohen calls “the smash-mouth style” of the ‘85 Bears—has, in this telling, a patina of grace, of the world as it should be. For me, that’s what I feel when I think back on that dude on Thorndale, lamenting another losing season, speaking a basic script of the city, albeit in a tongue of far-flung origin. Guy moves from wherever, bringing his own food and religion and language, but, man, he’s a Chicagoan now, as we all are, united by certain experiences and sensibilities, ideals and hopes. Cohen’s deftly woven, poignant, and exhilarating book grabs at this dynamic, shakes it good and hard, scrawls its name on a headband, and glares out at the camera of the world. Sure, this is sports writing, but it is also a defiant proclamation of identity: the city as who we are and what we want, at our best, to be. Click, click, click, click, Chicago, man.
Official Rich Cohen Web Site
Official Farrar, Straus and Giroux Web Site