When Rachel Shteir read Thomas Dyja’s The Third Coast on behalf of the New York Times, she found in it an argument Dyja wasn’t aware he’d put there—that Chicago is a tragedy it’s still in denial about, having sold its soul in the mid-1950s when “the American mass market . . . snuffed out Midwestern geniuses with radical roots.”
“It’s by no means a take down of Chicago,” Dyja told one reader who asked him what he thought of Shteir’s review; “if anything it’s an affirmation of the city’s importance to America.”
I’ve finally read The Third Coast for myself. Like Shteir, I sing its praises. And I do see the contours of the argument that Shteir seconded. But I can’t take it half as seriously as she did. The book’s an enchantment.
Dyja has done on Chicago’s behalf what our graying memories do on our own: he’s turned incident into narrative. One of the most common activities of old age is to wade into those boxes of loose photos and assemble the best into scrapbooks with labeled binders. Finding (or insisting on) a thread that runs through the handful of moments we remember of the infinite number fate brought our way isn’t an act of romantic falsification; every life, from the earliest age, is a story in search of itself.