On March 27, 1981, a young Chicago writer named Michael Kiefer published a short story in the Reader called “Doesn’t Anybody Speak English Anymore?” Kiefer liked his characters—Rudy, Hungarian super of a string of north-side apartment houses, and Harry, a kid from Wilmette who helps him out on maintenance runs—and used them again in 2000 in a short story he published in an airline’s flight magazine. Now they’re back, in a novel Kiefer brought out just three months ago. Creativity marches to its own drummer.
The novel is Speaking English, and the Reader story, somewhat revised (Harry, renamed, is now the narrator) is chapter two. The other short story is chapter five. “The book is pure Chicago,” says Kiefer, now 59, who moved to Arizona in 1992. The delay in publishing Speaking English shouldn’t be mistaken for an equal delay in writing it. In 2000 Kiefer quit his reporting job at New Times in Phoenix; “I didn’t feel like writing anything for anyone else,” he tells me, “so, nostalgic for Chicago, I sat down and wrote about 40,000 words for myself.” That was his first draft of Speaking English, and he thought he had it sold. But, says Kiefer, the New York house that intended to publish it backed out when another Kiefer book, his first, did poorly despite good reviews.