• Sue Kwong

This winter, the Reader has set a humble goal for itself: to determine the Greatest Chicago Book Ever Written. We chose 16 books that reflected the wide range of books that have come out of Chicago and the wide range of people who live here and assembled them into an NCAA-style bracket. Then we recruited a crack team of writers, editors, booksellers, and scholars as well as a few Reader staffers to judge each bout. The results of each contest will be published every Monday, along with an essay by each judge explaining his or her choice. The Reader reader who best predicts the judges’ rulings will win a trip to Mexico.

In this week’s contest, round one, bout seven, Reader staff writer Julia Thiel reads and adjudicates between Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed With Magellan. To see the results of previous bouts, look here.

Every book has its own rhythm. Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed With Magellan pulses with life; Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is slow, soothing, almost hypnotic. Every time I picked it up, it immediately lulled me to sleep. It’s very difficult to make a dent in a 600-page book when reading two pages renders you unconscious. But on the plus side, I haven’t needed sleeping pills for the last couple months.

I eventually managed to stay awake long enough to figure out what was happening, and found the answer: not a hell of a lot. The narrator and hero, Augie March, does a whole lot of narrating and not much hero-ing. A windbag philosopher, he bounces from job to job, describing in excruciating detail the people he meets along the way. Around the time he graduates from high school, he says, “I know I longed very much, but I didn’t understand for what.” That doesn’t change much throughout the book; he’s constantly trying to figure out what he wants.

It could be argued that Augie is meant to be an everyman and, as such, shouldn’t be extraordinary; there’s not much that’s more universal than looking for a direction in life. But his spinelessness goes far beyond the call of duty for an everyman. As the book progresses, the people Augie knows develop plans to get what they want, and he goes along with them. Occasionally, in a fit of independence, he refuses, but that’s about as far as his self-determination goes. Meanwhile his brother Simon decides what he wants and makes it happen; it turns out that entails making lots of money and acting like an entitled asshole once he has it, but there’s still something to be said for having a vision.

It’s also hard to accept Augie as the hero when the book is full of other characters who seem more vibrant, if a bit eccentric. There’s Grandma Lausch, for example, who takes control of the March family (Augie, his mother, and his two brothers) despite being a boarder in their house and not a member of the family. Or Thea, a woman Augie falls in love with, who takes him with her to Mexico, where she wants to train an eagle to hunt lizards. Augie thinks this is insane, but hardly makes a peep while Thea is buying and training the eagle, or when the scheme fails and she starts collecting snakes instead.

Bellow does succeed in one area where Dybek fails (or, to be more accurate, doesn’t even try): writing strong, developed female characters. But I don’t think it exactly qualifies for the feminist canon, either. Among other issues, there’s a particularly creepy passage in which Augie asserts that women don’t mind being felt up by an old man “because he picked out whatever each of them herself prized most—color, breasts, hair, hips, and all the little secrets and connivances with which she emphasized her own good things. . . . With his spotty big old male hands, he felt up the married and the unmarried ones, and even the little girls for what they promised, and nobody ever was offended by it.”

The book does, ultimately, paint a vivid picture of Depression-era Chicago. But Dybek’s deft brushstrokes in I Sailed With Magellan create an equally compelling portrait that’s also full of poetry and humor. The interconnected short stories frame not only the adolescence and early adulthood of the main character, Perry Katzek, but also the south side of Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s.

In an early story, “Song,” Perry’s Boys Club band director blithely leads the all-white marching band under the tracks from Little Village to the African-American neighborhood of Douglas Park during a practice march, attracting spectators who whack the bass drum with a bat, empty a pot of water out of a window into the tubas, and throw a tomato at the director; the band members quickly scatter. And as a teen, Perry takes amphetamines with his friend Stosh and goes on the roof of a lakefront high-rise to watch the sunrise; he describes waiting for the “reddish aura” they can see across the lake to show itself.

But dawn seems stuck, glimmering just out of sight beyond the curve of the planet, whose rotation we can feel in the numbing wind that buffets the chain-link fence bordering the roof. . . . We’re staring out, not so much shivering as vibrating like the fence, when Uncle Hunky joins us, and we point out the glow.

“Dawn? Dawn ain’t for at least two hours. You’re looking at the furnaces across the lake in Gary,” he starts to explain, then pauses, snorting laughter. “You two dupas thought Gary, Indiana, was the dawn!”

There’s a certain grittiness to Magellan, especially the parts about the Mafia, but also a thread of dreaminess that runs throughout. “We Didn’t,” a story about Perry and his girlfriend not consummating their relationship, is surprisingly and unrelentingly charming. And in “Orchids,” Perry’s fascination with the beauty of Chicago’s industrial landscape gets him in trouble when he takes his prom date to Shit Creek.

“I had the impulse to show her the river, where the factories billowed veils of smoke across floodlights as if they were manufacturing fog. I wanted her to see the reflections that the furnaces scorched across oily water, the fireworks of acetylene blue splashing into red-hot sparks behind smudged foundry windows. . . .”

Unimpressed, she responds: “I really do like you, and I know I could get to like you a lot more, and I do want you to call me someday as soon as you get some professional help.”

Perry may not have any more direction in life than Augie, but the structure of Magellan—skipping from one period of his life to the next, highlighting specific stories rather than sharing every detail—means that his wandering doesn’t become tedious in the same way Augie’s does. Oddly, it actually seems to make his story the more cohesive of the two. But what really wins me over is Dybek’s lively prose, poetic and spare; it’s strikingly different from Bellow’s lush, painstakingly crafted, and soporific style.

This round was another bracket-buster: just 28 percent of you predicted Augie March would fall to I Sailed With Magellan. Voting for round two begins next week, on January 13.

  • Sue Kwong