Local Lit: James McManus's end-of-the-world epic | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Local Lit: James McManus's end-of-the-world epic 

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The fiction trade is never booming but it's been relatively healthy of late. Short-story collections -- tidy albums of terse snapshots framed with irony -- have been a particularly popular commodity. This mild bull market is encouraging but conceals insidious dangers. Success breeds imitation and complacency, discouraging risk, excess, and ambition. Writers grow in craft but shrink in depth and breadth, and their language becomes a standardized, sometimes debased currency purchasing stingy slices of life. In such a fiction market, few play for high stakes because few acknowledge how high the stakes really are.

Among those willing to go for broke is Winnetka writer James McManus. For him words are not small change but talismans with the power to merge contraries, to transform the mundane, to invoke gods and demons. In short McManus is betting that fiction is not the dim mirror of contemporary minimalism but the dark transcendent art of his mentors Joyce, Beckett, Burroughs, and Pynchon. And lately, it seems, his gamble has been paying off.

On May 8 Barbara's Bookstore will host a publishing party celebrating the release of McManus's second novel, Chin Music, in Grove paperback. In a few months Grove will release his third novel, Ghost Waves, and will reissue his first novel, Out of the Blue, in paperback. Since 1985 McManus has garnered some $36,000 in arts council, National Endowment for the Arts, and shifting fund grants, largely from the promise and success of Chin Music. Slowly and begrudgingly, James McManus is being recognized as the most important new novelist in Chicago today.

The struggle for this recognition has been dogged and sometimes discouraging. His first novel, Out of the Blue (Crown, 1984), indicated little of the pyrotechnics in the novels to follow. The book was marked more by self-imposed limitations than the free flight of an iconoclastic imagination. The story of a family mistakenly victimized by a terrorist kidnapping, it is a tour de force of externalization, crafted as thinly and intricately as a microchip, rendered in a prose so austere it would parch the mouth of Hemingway. Out of the Blue met largely with noncomprehension and indifference, including one sour review in the New York Times Book Review, which cynically suggested that McManus wrote it the way he did to spare the screenwriter trouble in rewriting the movie version. ("In fact I did get three options on movie deals," McManus recalls. "I started looking for houses -- it was frustrating." McManus still lives in an apartment over a plumbing store with his wife and two children.)

Such critical complacency was hard to sustain in the face of Chin Music, first published by Crown in 1986. Ostensibly it is the story of White Sox fireballer Raymond Zajak, felled by a beanball during a World Series game at Comiskey Park at some undisclosed (and unimaginable) future date. Zajak wakes from a coma to discover the neurological chaos of his damaged brain reflected in the grisly Totentanz of a Chicago awaiting the retaliatory strike of launched Soviet ICBMs. Written in a style and form as extreme as its premise, McManus's new novel aroused adulation and outrage but little indifference. Some critics groped for superlatives and august comparisons: "An avant-garde word dance," sang the Baltimore Sun. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram said it "crossbreeds rock and roll's gut immediacy with the cool articulation of a Bach fugue."

Perhaps more enlightening were reviews that sputtered for words to express their distaste or bewilderment: "dark," "incomprehensible," "unfathomable," "pointless word stunts, gruesome pornography . .. cuckoo," and "cuckoo" were a few.

McManus had gotten attention but not much comprehension. Most readings of his book, he contends, missed the point. Few reviews, he points out, noted or examined Chin Music's parallels to the two outposts on the frontiers of Western literature, the Odyssey and Ulysses. At one level the book can be read as the Marvel Comics version of these two epics, a rapid-fire, hyperbolized, and highly volatile condensation. Zajak is both Odysseus and Leopold Bloom as he wanders homeward to his State Parkway graystone, clad only in a bright orange Chicago fire anniversary T-shirt, bedeviled by such prodigies as mohawked leather boys with crowbars, Izod-shirted suicides plummeting from Sears Tower condominiums, and the random debaucheries, atrocities, and gunfire of a doomed city. Jesse, his 12-year-old son, is both Telemachus and Stephen Dedalus, re-creating his father's exploits in a final sandlot game and a first and last virginal kiss. And Teresa, his wife, a violinist, is Penelope and Molly, stymied by a band of teenage "suitors" drunkenly commandeering a garbage truck in her attempts to restore the nuclear family in time for nuclear annihilation.

The Joycean and Homeric parallels are meticulous and sometimes hilarious, but the power of Chin Music is not in its allusions to these epics but in its mastery of their fundamental metamorphic principle. Like Homer and Joyce and others who aspire to that lineage, McManus strives to forge the disparate elements of our culture into a single vision. It has the audacity to merge baseball, the apocalypse, brain damage, and the Odyssey into a single metaphor and the impudence and conviction to make that metaphor work.

The absurd synthesis works because of McManus's insight into the nature and craft of his profession. He has faith, foremost and paradoxically, in the family he so grievously assaults in his novel, and in the love, harmony, and integrity it represents. He has faith, too, in language as a means of disclosing and restoring that harmony; a belief, for example, that a word like "fugue" -- a medical term for a disordered mental state and a musical term for a highly ordered harmonic form -- can engender a work of art that reconciles clarity and madness, life and death. He also apparently believes in the manifestation of divinity in human affairs.

His odyssey, too, has a helpful Athena, a gray-eyed, blond-haired, red-bereted Guardian Angel, who gives Zajak direction home but also "has more than one voice, when she sings. She speaks with one voice, an amalgam of rhetorics. Ours. If only we'd listen we'd hear her. She knows the whole story."

Until we listen to this elusive voice, we must be satisfied with only part of the story. In the end, Zajak manages a homecoming of sorts. He is comforted, and his wife plays a recording of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge that's missing the voice of the lead violin. The voice of Athena is made clear by its absence: "Jesus she thinks. That nervewracking hush between notes you've forgotten. Our sentence I guess.

"To wonder with all our might. To remember.

"We lie here and wait for the light."

Seldom has the storyteller's task been stated so sublimely or ambiguously: to fill the hush with sentences forging subjects to impossible predicates, and to elude until the light the malice of men and fate by inventing lies.

A publication party for the Grove paperback release of Chin Music will take place tonight at Barbara's Bookstore, 1434 N. Wells, at 7 PM. Call 642-5044 for more information. James McManus will read from his new novel, Ghost Waves, on Thursday, May 14, at 7 PM in the Illinois Room of Chicago Circle Center, 750 S. Halsted, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Also reading will be Maxine Chernoff and Deborah Tintonelli. Admission is $2, $1 for UIC students; 413-5070 for details.

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