Author of the 1909 Plan of Chicago, a vision of the city that was almost perfectly false and therefore irresistible to two generations of boosters. Inventor of a Chicago for people who didn’t like Chicago… —Jim Krohe on Daniel Burnham, in “The Man With the Plan,” June 18

The American Scheme

The meditations of Lee Sandlin were rare and special events, sort of like Terrence Malick movies. His first, on interstates, ran in 1984. Nineteen years later he returned with 20,000 words on his father, aka the Regular Guy, aka the American dreamer. In truth, Sandlin left not much unsaid about the postwar era. His father built subdivisions in farmers’ fields; for a time, other Regular Guys and their wives and kids filled them as fast as the houses went up.

Mornings at the railway station, even the somnolent commuters knew it: they were being invaded. One by one, then a few more every day, an infiltrating army of young men, in new, badly fitting suits bought off the rack, were waiting for the trains. Where were they all coming from? Nobody knew: they didn’t live anywhere near here. They were already frazzled and ill at ease after the interminable drive to the station; and they were about to be humiliated by the discovery that their fellow passengers hadn’t spoken a word to an unfamiliar seatmate in 30 years. In the office buildings downtown, they mercifully didn’t get off the elevators at your floor; but they rode the trains home with you in the evening, before getting into their cars and disappearing back into nowhere.

Sandlin’s father made a lot of money, but then it turned out his partner had looted the company and left him holding the bag. Thinking he finally understood how the world worked, he set up a new scheme and this one was all smoke and mirrors. Before it collapsed he dropped dead. He was 43.

Six months after my parents’ divorce, when he was alone one night in his new apartment, he got his wish. It was a massive heart attack. He’d been waiting for it. He hadn’t even bothered to unpack: the apartment was stacked high with unopened cardboard boxes. Whoever found him—his landlord, his secretary, the cops, or all of them together—had stripped his body of his watch and rings and cleaned the place of everything else they could carry. They must have been disappointed when they opened up the boxes: all they found were books. Tens of thousands of books: mountains of private eye stories, sheer cliffs of spy novels, pinnacles of science fiction, trenches of westerns and inexhaustible veins of pornography: my father’s secret carnival, never acknowledged or understood.

By 1993 Matt Groening’s The Simpsons was a smash hit on TV. But it didn’t do full justice to Groening’s dark absurdism. Fortunately for the Reader, he still drew Life in Hell.