Tuesday, October 23, 2012

You Were Never in Chicago: Neil Steinberg comes of age

Posted By on 10.23.12 at 11:00 AM

There is a tradition of iconic Chicago writers making books out of their romances with the city. Nelson Algren gave Chicago City on the Make, Studs Terkel Studs Terkel's Chicago, Ben Hecht Gaily, Gaily. Saul Bellow began The Adventures of Augie March on this note: "I am an American, Chicago born."

As Neil Steinberg observes in his own new book, Bellow was actually a Canadian, Montreal born—but whatever. Bellow came from Canada at age nine, Steinberg from Ohio as a Northwestern freshman. In You Were Never in Chicago, Steinberg concerns himself with authenticity among Chicagoans whenever and however they arrived. It's a matter of spirit and perspective. An authentic Chicagoan lives here—and not as an outsider. Also, not as a sucker.

Steinberg's book is about his romance, and although it holds its own with the others as a piece of writing, it varies from them in the nature of the self-image projected by the writer. Steinberg has serious doubts about himself as an icon—he broods that his many years as a Sun-Times columnist have made him at best marginally notable—or even as a writer who deserves the reader's respect. During most of the time I was reading You Were Never in Chicago I wondered what Steinberg thought he was doing: how could an author seriously celebrate Chicago while feeling so equivocal about himself? I suspected Steinberg of playing a subtle psychological game I hadn't figured out yet. Maybe his plan was to ultimately repudiate the city he pretended to embrace by giving it to us straight—There's nothing lovely about a lady with a broken nose. And that's why I moved to the suburbs!

Or maybe the frequent loose strands of self-contempt would finally find their weave and the book would resolve itself as an admission of the author's unworthiness to live here. Steinberg shows us how close he and his brother Sam are, but he hints at estrangement from everyone else. Of a sister: "Debbie and I had nothing to say to each other." Of his father: "I know my father all too well, he is very much alive, thank you, doing fine." Of his hometown: "While I grew up and spent my entire youth in the same house in Berea, we didn't really know anyone there, not well, and had no close friends and no family nearby."

He writes of his "shark-like hunger to promote myself," and gives examples. He snickers at himself: "My editors might say no, and then I'd have my marginality confirmed." He flaunts his soul's low state: "Some reporters never accept a free lunch; I never turn one down."

But no, this admission betokens the portion of the book—roughly its last third—in which his rough treatment of himself stops getting in the way of whatever he's trying to say about Chicago and clarifies it. His flaws are the city's; Chicago allows him to see himself in a kindly light as a practical man in a practical town.

Since the book is less about the city than the author, it's complete with a moral crisis. Sam has a patch of bad luck. He needs a job and health insurance. Older brother Neil, the columnist about town, can help. But should he? Like the machine pols editorial pages love to slam (and Neil Steinberg sat on the Sun-Times's editorial board), he's nicely positioned to make some calls, use some influence, put family first. Hypocrisy gives him pause, but turns out not to be an insurmountable obstacle. "Every week, almost every day, we put politicians on a spit and roast them like rotisserie chickens for slipping their relatives onto the public payroll. That I don't make a habit of denouncing this practice helps. I am far more interested in potato chip factories. Many lapses can be forgiven by readers, but hypocrisy is fatal. I'm not a politician, I'm a newspaper columnist, and not just a columnist, but one who likes to baldly admit being biased, influenced, lunching with pals, and swapping secrets."

Well, all right then. He calls Gloria Majewski, a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. Because he knows her publicist, he'd just gone to one of her fund-raisers. "Not that I gave her money," he muses, "but I was there, lending whatever sequin's worth of twinkly my presence conveys." As the district is already an "ongoing carnival of favoritism," putting Sam and the commissioner together is like "walking up to the buffet at a wedding reception." You don't ask permission to eat. "Grab a plate and dig in."

And he calls Maria Pappas, the Cook County treasurer. She's a pal. "Has not the woman fixed me dinner? Are we not coffee buddies? Heck, she already offered me a job—that makes it almost seem like she's doling them out."

Pappas hires Sam, gives him not just a job but a pretty good one—not that Sam, with his master's in finance, isn't completely qualified to hold it. And the author is at peace with himself. "Nobody lives in Chicago alone," he explains to his readers. "It is all a web of relationships and interactions, loyalties and grudges. . . . You cannot have your hand against the world—you need friends, colleagues, people you trust, people you look out for and who in turn trust and look out for you. Often in Chicago it would be people you grew up with, who you went to school with, or your fellow church members or neighbors. Why? You know them, you like them, you trust them . . .

"Indeed, the idea that it should be otherwise—that everybody should suffer the consequences of their actions, should rise and fall on their worth, their resumes, without nebulous personal considerations getting in the way—is the rarity, the impossible standard that people pay lip service to and then ignore. Like communism, it's a lofty idea that deflates on the thorns of how human beings actually are."

Steinberg doesn't say whether in any of those unbylined editorials he's written over the years for the Sun-Times—the ones readers can't pin on him—he put politicians on the spit for looking out for their kid brothers. He does say there was only one editorial he ever refused to write—an endorsement of Lisa Madigan when she ran for attorney general. "Too young, obvious nepotism," he explains. Unlike Sam, Lisa wasn't qualified.

There's a lot Steinberg doesn't say. There are only occasional allusions to his drinking—but then, he covered that ground exceptionally well in Drunkard. There is nothing about any of the editorials that Steinberg wrote toeing the lines laid down by eventually-to-be-imprisoned-for-corruption publisher David Radler. The Sun-Times went all in championing the invasion of Iraq and sneering at naysayers, and more than once back in 2003 and 2004 I wrote a column ridiculing the belligerence of its editorial page. Eventually I received a hostile, anguished e-mail from Steinberg letting me know he was the author of those editorials! What was it like to write them? If Steinberg didn't agree with every word he wrote—and I don't see how he could have—the moral ambiguity in that is at least as discussion-worthy as it was in the job hunt for his kid brother.

And though Steinberg mentions being advised when he was a freshly minted and unemployed Medill grad to try writing for the Reader, he doesn't tell us that eventually that's what he did, much less get into the ethical complications of his notorious Bobwatch takedowns of Bob Greene, then a Tribune star, the series of columns written under the alias "Ed Gold." Anonymity didn't sit well with Steinberg, and he showed up at one Reader event sporting a name tag that said "Ed Gold." Steinberg had his disguise, but he needed it penetrated. He's a complicated guy.

The thing is, I am in considerable sympathy with Steinberg's pragmatic principles. And because he doesn't work nearly as hard as most columnists do to sound simpler than he is, he's consistently rewarding to read. He's my wife's favorite Chicago columnist (she grabbed his book and read it before I did), and from time to time I think he's mine too. You Were Never in Chicago (the title comes from a postcard A.J. Liebling received after publishing Second City) feels less like a fully formed book than it does an inventory of his psyche that he needed to make before tackling the book that would really stare himself down. But it's laced with pleasures.

The back cover calls it a "coming-of-age" tale and I guess it is. But coming-of-age tales usually end on a note of celebration, and if that's what you want you'd better find another writer. Gloom is always right outside Steinberg's window, and as he concludes he cracks it open. Newspapers are doomed and he's in his 50s and—well, hell, what can he do but go on?

"We have good days, bad days, good years, bad years; we chug along for so long it almost seems like forever. Then we peak, we age, the end of the roller coaster suddenly lurches into view, our energies wane, yet we plow forward, relying upon our momentum, our knowledge, our connections, to keep us in the fun a little longer, as gravity claws at the trajectory of our lives. Then at some point, usually very suddenly, it's all over, the ride jerks to a halt, and it's time for us to unbuckle and depart."

Aside from being nicely written, what's interesting about this passage is that You Were Never in Chicago will leave you in no doubt that Steinberg could have written it the day he got his column. He could see it in the stars at dawn: it will be fun, it will end, you will be forgotten. But better to be forgotten by Chicago than Berea, Ohio.

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