Short Takes | Book Review | Chicago Reader

Short Takes 

One journey around the Great Lakes, another into pirate consciousness, and a third deep into the heart of whimsy.

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Ted McClelland

Chicago Review Press | $24.95

Is there a unifying Great Lakes culture? In June 2005 former Reader staffer Ted McClelland (known for much of his tenure here as Ted Kleine) set sail in his Dodge Neon to find out. Armed with tent, camp stove, and sensible shoes, McClelland circumnavigated the Canadian-American watershed, which he dubs "Freshwater Nation." The result is a folksy, engaging travelogue rife with interesting marginalia, like the history of Owen Sound, Ontario, as the final stop on the Underground Railroad.

McClelland's affection for the lakes and their peoples comes through in portraits of characters like an Ojibway painter cheerfully playing Native-in-residence at Ontario's Pukaskwa National Park, or the graying lefties at an antiwar concert in Duluth. "The Upper Midwestern left isn't angry," he writes. "It is earnest, wholesome, nonconfrontational, and a little hurt that the U.S.A. settles its conflicts with violence. It goes to church and volunteers at the nature center. Its car is rusty. It needs a new pair of Rockport walking shoes. It pays ten dollars to hear folk music at the Unitarian fellowship."

But at times his crush on his subject blinds him to its complexities. His sources are disproportionately the sort of old timers who like to tell tales—War of 1812 reenactors, lighthouse buffs, "boat nerds." This is understandable from a reporting standpoint: they're colorful, chatty, and not off at work like everybody else. But it lends a certain sameness to the texture of the narrative; after a while I was longing to hear someone under 30 discuss life on the Great Lakes. Instead, McClelland's search for a Great Lakes culture is clouded by nostalgia's addictive fog. In Cleveland, for instance, he's distressed to discover break-dancers and craft beer. The "real Cleveland," he laments, is pierogis, polka, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Never mind the story behind the Great Lakes Brewing Company, a 20-year-old microbrewery that built its brand on Cleveland lore. McClelland seems happy to ignore the facts on the ground if they don't fit his predetermined notion of authenticity.

McClelland obviously had a lot of fun with his project, and his pride in the region is unshakable, but that's also his book's flaw. In fact, by the fifth or sixth derisive reference to the residents of the American South as Wal-Mart-shoppin', NASCAR-lovin' hicks bent on stealing our water, that pride starts to sound a little xenophobic. I'd have been content if he'd just skipped the tidy generalizations and delivered more stories from citizens of Freshwater Nation. —Martha Bayne


Edward Chupack

Thomas Dunne Books | $23.95

That quaint growl of a subtitle tells us that "Silver" is Long John, the rascally buccaneer of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Local real estate attorney Chupack makes his fiction debut (his other published title: Lease Negotiation Handbook) with this often meandering first-person account of the famous pirate's arc from Bristol street urchin to bloody lord of the main to captive, racked with fever and held on his own ship by a rival captain taking him back to England to hang.

On this final sea passage Silver communicates with only one other character, a cabin boy named Mullet. But the tales Silver spins are peopled by many Treasure Island denizens. Holding the narrative together is a Bible containing coded directions to a treasure that Silver's spent most of his career seeking; Chupack's loaded his novel with the same ciphers and riddles that confound the pirate. It's presumably a solvable puzzle "if the reader dares look," as the press release puts it, but Silver functions as much more than a brainteaser. Long John Silver is fully realized (or re-realized) as a man who knows he was born already damned to hell. He rejoices in life as a sailor, in the business of larceny (which is "more honest than most others"), and in murder, which "it gives me profound pleasure to recount." And he's a damned fine master of language, too. As he drifts in and out of fever dreams his recital morphs into a kind of prose poetry in which "Londontown... is a city as dark as my own heart."

Silver isn't a retelling of Treasure Island, although the principals do come together in the end with the smell of loot thick in the air. You might call it really fine fan fiction. Silver tells how, when learning to read, he enjoyed adventure stories but found himself rewriting them so "the heathens thrashed the gentlemen and gentlewomen after I completed my corrections." Similarly, Chupack admits in an afterword that his favorite character in Stevenson's novel wasn't Jim Hawkins, who could easily be replaced by "another plucky lad from central casting." Here Chupack's made his own corrections, giving Long John a book of his own that starts, "I am Silver, and there is no other pirate like me." —Patrick Daily


Elizabeth Crane

Punk Planet Books | $14.95

As its title suggests, Elizabeth Crane's third collection of short stories centers on happiness. The gleeful humor with which she explores her fanciful plotlines brings to mind the exuberance of an imaginative child. In one story the protagonist discovers that her television is inhabited by miniature versions of the on-screen actors, and, removing them from the TV, finds new possibilities for her love life. After a fling with "Brad Brad-Brad from Sexy Doctors Sex It Up," she falls in love with Rocket Dude del Toro, commenting, "You simply cannot French kiss a man whose mouth is a centimeter wide without risk of asphyxiation. If, however, you place one in just the right spot in your pants, you can experience something truly transcendent."

While Crane's sense of humor may be fully developed, her characters aren't. They mostly remain sketches, impossible to care much about. The plot—or, in the stories lacking one, the premise—takes precedence. In this respect, "Notes for a Story About People With Weird Phobias"—which simply lists phobias that might be discussed on a talk show—isn't that different from her more conventional stories. Even a character sketch, "Sally (Featuring: Lollipop the Rainbow Unicorn)," skimps on character, presenting a stereotype of a (nearly) perfect girl rather than giving her some complexity.

If these stories were driven by well-crafted plots their lack of characterization might be forgivable. But many of the pieces get so caught up in exploring their bizarre concepts that they founder. A glaring case in point is "Emmanuel," where a baby boy turns into a full-grown Ethan Hawke overnight, with kids of his own and a fully developed vocabulary but an unfortunate lack of toilet training. Crane crams so many elements into the story that it's hard to know what to focus on. Why does Hawke have an espresso craving when he hasn't yet learned to walk? What's with his involvement with a 17-year-old girl? And all those digressions? By the end I just didn't care anymore. —JuliaThiel



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