There is a man who believes his life was saved by Chicago author Eugene Izzi. It wasn’t anything dramatic: Izzi didn’t pull him out of a blazing apartment, or take a bullet for him. “Rick” was a drug addict and an alcoholic, a working burglar and a repeat criminal offender who had been in trouble with the law since he was a little boy. Nobody could help Rick, not even the local detox centers. He’d been barred from them. He couldn’t stay sober, couldn’t stay out of trouble, couldn’t stay away from cocaine. He tried a geographic cure, relocating to Chicago, but he brought his problems with him.
Then one night he met Izzi. Rick doesn’t want me to disclose the setting of their first meeting, but he admits he was very drunk, and somehow he wound up in Izzi’s car, a brand-new Lincoln Town Car. “Guy goes, “You puke in this car, and I give you my word, you’ve had your last drink.”‘ Sometime after midnight the two ended up drinking coffee in a south-side park, and Izzi showed Rick a piece of cardboard with a bunch of words typed on it. Over the next 90 days he somehow got Rick into a detox center in Englewood, bought him food and clothes, and helped him out with his rent. And every night for three months he made sure Rick attended an AA meeting. On day 91 Izzi stepped aside. That’s the way he does it: 90 days and out. Today Rick works and lives at an alcohol treatment center. He hasn’t had a drink in five years, nor has he touched drugs or committed a crime.
What was on that card? Rick no longer remembers every word. Something about an arena, and blood and sweat and tears. He does remember Izzi asking him over and over, “Are you willing to do anything to stay sober?” So many times that Rick often wanted to hit him just to shut him up.
Yet Izzi hasn’t spoken to Rick in something over three years; the relationship just wasn’t as important to him as it was to Rick. Izzi knows hundreds of people, and he claims he gets along with most of them. But relationships aren’t his specialty. He admits he’s no good at maintaining them. The people he is close to, however, can do no wrong. And they reap the rewards that come with working hard enough to win the trust of such a man.
Izzi’s office is on the near south side, within walking distance of his home. It’s a setting a 40s private eye would have killed for: cheap carpeting on the floor, leaky windows that don’t leak enough to cool down a place that doesn’t seem to have regulator valves on the radiators. There’s a separate reception area, which Izzi uses for storage.
It’s hot enough in the office to make Izzi pull off his sweatshirt. He doesn’t smooth down his hair. His black T-shirt bears white cursive lettering that spells out Little Italy, N.Y. He buys shirts like this a dozen at a time once a year when he’s in New York, a place he considers enemy territory, so he doesn’t have to make any decisions about his daily ensemble. He is a muscular 200 pounds, a little over six feet tall, and he likes to hit a punching bag filled with water; on days he doesn’t punch the bag, he works out at a local health club. He has broad shoulders and, at 40, no middle-aged paunch. And he dislikes talking to strangers.
Izzi chain-smokes nonfilter cigarettes as we talk. His office door is closed and locked. There’s a one-by-four-inch piece of wood attached to the wall above his bulletin board bearing the words Le notte e per il lupo, “The night is the wolf’s.” His bookcase is overflowing with hard- and softback novels and nonfiction books on crime and its cause, and punishment. Izzi hasn’t talked to a Chicago reporter in four years, or to any reporter in nearly three years. He has declined all recent requests for interviews, and says this may be his last one. He allowed his publisher to set up only three signings for his last hardcover book, and he did no publicity at all for the two paperback reprints issued in 1993 (Prowlers and Tribal Secrets) or for the paperback original that came out this fall, Tony’s Justice, his tenth novel. There are one million copies of his novels in print, but Izzi seems uncomfortable with his success. He doesn’t like to talk about what he does or how he does it, or about how much money he does or doesn’t make.
He still carries the cardboard, though, in a compartment in his wallet. He is somewhat surprised that Rick has forgotten the wording, and he reluctantly agrees to show it to me; he usually shows it only to drunks he works with. On it is a motto he has carried with him for the past 20 years, ever since he sliced it out of a book at the Hegewisch branch of the Chicago Public Library. Covered with clear tape, the paper is faded and yellow but still easily read. It says:
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood . . . who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself at a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and . . . if he fails, at least fails daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. –John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Izzi knows about such things, particularly about being marred. Two slim scars run down the side of his nose, which has been so badly broken that he can’t breathe through it lying on his back. More scars mar his cheek and his forehead. A piece of metal is embedded in his palm, and around it has grown a hard, yellow callus, red in the middle. A piece of black pencil lead is supposedly stuck in his left thigh; one can only wonder where the pencil was aimed. The knuckle of his left ring finger, which was broken at some point and never set, has a small lump protruding from it. He constantly does stretching exercises for a bulging disk in his back that often causes him to limp. On bad days he walks like Mike Ditka; on good days he can jog a mile or two.
He calls these his reminders. For when he starts to think that life is good.
There are a couple of other reminders pinned to a bulletin board hanging on the wall. The first one is a letter signed “Romantic Violence,” a neo-Nazi group, that accuses Izzi of being a “race-traitor.” That’s the most benign insult on the page. Whoever wrote it wants Izzi to know that he knows where he lives and works. There’s a swastika under the signature, and at the top of the letter is a crude drawing of Izzi, wavy hair, prominent nose, and all. A bullet is entering his skull.
The second reminder is a Polaroid picture of Izzi after a beating. He’s wearing a sleeveless undershirt in the picture. His face is a mask of bruises. “Last February that happened.” Izzi shrugs. It is the price of doing business, what he calls “occupational hazards.” But don’t call him a tough guy; it’s a misconception he’s been fighting for years.
“I am in no way anyone’s idea of a tough guy, and no one who knows me at all well would ever say that I am. I personally don’t like the so-called “tough guys’ I’ve met. They often seem to confuse “tough’ with “rude.”‘ Rude is something Izzi very rarely is; his unfailing courtesy toward strangers could in fact be seen as a part of his defense against them, a way he keeps his distance. “I have walked far out of my way in order to avoid some stupid street confrontation; I have nothing to prove to anyone but myself and my family.” He smiles. “Besides, I’m getting a little old to be getting into gutter brawls.” But the media have built up a tough-guy image of Izzi over the years, and that’s one of the reasons he rarely speaks to them anymore.
“Once you’re put in a box, stereotyped, it’s impossible to convince anyone that you’re not what they think you are. After a while, I just stopped trying. It just got old. I’d be somewhere [on a book tour] where I’d be scheduled [with a reporter] for an hour, and I’d talk to somebody for 5 minutes about my past and for 55 minutes about my present life, my family, my dreams and hopes for the future, and the article comes out and there’s the tough guy, Eugene Izzi. Usually written in some sort of cutesy-hip noir style. I was the inarticulate ape who’d somehow pounded out enough words to make a book. And that’s not true. I am not that guy. I know how to write, and I worked very, very hard to get where I am, and I in fact still do.”
Izzi has never taken a vacation, but he sends his wife and children wherever they want to go–Disney World, various resorts in Wisconsin. Theresa, his wife of 16 years, also takes vacations with her friends, and Izzi and his sons manage on their own while she’s gone. He rarely raises his voice to his sons, Gino, 17, and Nick, 13. Along with Theresa, the boys are, he says, “my people.”
Izzi has a near-compulsive need to keep a low profile. In effect he has turned his back on civilized society. He has snubbed every socialite he’s ever met, refused every party invitation. He tells anyone who asks that he’s unemployed. He prefers listening to being listened to, watching to being watched. Observation and anonymity are the tools of his work. And he doesn’t like what “celebrity” has done to others.
“There are several writers I know who let the undertow of stardom pull them down, and they drowned. I don’t care how they live, how many Rolexes they own, how many cars they drive, none of that is my business. But I strongly resent paying $22 for a book written by someone I considered to be talented and have it turn out to be a star vehicle. “Look at me! Aren’t I an artiste!”‘ He won’t let the undertow drag him down. In fact, as soon as he felt its tug, he swam away as fast as he could.
“It’s seductive, I think, at least it was for me. Theresa and I had never had anything before, and then there were suddenly stretch limos taking me to the airport, first-class flights with drivers waiting on the other end to take me to meetings with movie producers. It’s a strange life-style, the Rolls-Royce syndrome. But if you fall into it, money becomes more important to you than your talent. And I’d rather die than to see the day dawn where money meant that much to my life, where you’d sell out all you hold dear in order to get a nice paycheck.” So he turned his back on it; he doesn’t even have an LA agent anymore. The Town Car is gone, as are his two suburban homes. Izzi and his family moved back into the city about a year and a half ago.
“I was spending an hour and a half a day commuting, back and forth, every day. The car payment, the garage, the gas, insurance, the lost time, it was getting too much. I couldn’t work in the suburbs as well as I do in the city. And I missed it when I left, God did I miss this city. So we moved.”
“I don’t care about impressing people. I want to impress my family, yes, that’s very important. Theresa and the boys.” And various friends who are so close he considers them brothers and sisters. “All the friends I need, I’m related to, and they aren’t all related to me by blood.”
And he may need them all if he keeps getting threat letters from groups like Romantic Violence. “I think they’ve disbanded, or got pinched, or something. That swinging from light posts quote is a direct rip-off from The Turner Diaries.” He thinks the person who sent the letter was a skinhead he interviewed for Bulletin From the Streets, an as yet unpublished book with a homeless man as the main character. At the tail end of Izzi’s drinking days he himself was homeless, sleeping on the floor of a barbershop. But while he was writing this book he went out and slept in parks and under a train platform for a week, to “get the character down.”
It was for one of the book’s subplots that Izzi spoke to the skinhead, whom he ended up making a character in the book. His mistake, he says today, was in sending the manuscript pages that depicted the fictional character to the real skinhead; they were not, to say the least, flattering. He has doubts that the man was actually a member of Romantic Violence, and believes that he sent the letter under their imprimatur to throw suspicion away from himself in the unlikely event that Izzi sent the letter to the FBI.
“The guy was an ignorant, racist asshole. He knew all the language, had all the slogans down pat, because it gave him a way to justify his hatred. I don’t want to hear about his problems with other races. And he doesn’t want to hear about any black people who aren’t being paraded around on the ten o’clock news.”
The best way to talk to Izzi is to get him going about something that makes him angry. A lot of things make him angry.
“As long as we’re talking about ignorant, blind, neo-Nazi punks, let’s be fair, let’s not lay all the blame on them. There’s plenty to go around. Talk to any yuppies lately? Listen to the talk shows? Shows on race relations always draw big call-ins. And there’s always some smarmy yuppie whining about they don’t owe anyone a damn thing, how the laws have been changed, how it’s illegal to discriminate against blacks today. To hell with that; it’s been illegal for less than 30 years! And look at the lives lost, not only King, but the countless others who didn’t win Nobel Prizes, the people who were lynched, the women who were raped. Now, there’s a law to stop racism? There’s laws against handguns, too, and drunk driving. They do as much good as the laws against discrimination. Education’s the only key, and you can indeed educate the stupid. The ignorant, no chance. They like being ignorant.”
In Izzi’s mind, the answer to the race problem is education. He thinks every black in America should be entitled to a free college education. “Let’s face it, the mills closed down, they’re gone forever. The guys who worked in them are screwed, but their kids are taking it in the neck even worse. Locked like sardines into substandard housing.” Izzi holds up a hand, as if I were about to interrupt him when he’s on a roll. “I’ve been in plenty of them, I know about the gangs, about the so-called Reagan welfare queens.” He pauses and glares at me. “And I know, too, that 90 percent of the people living in CHA homes aren’t in gangs, and aren’t involved in crime. They want the same thing I want in my life. Safety, security, a chance for a better life for their kids.”
Both Izzi’s office and his home are wired with monitored alarms. His name does not appear with the rest of the buildings’ tenants’, under glass next to the house phone in the lobby. There is gang graffiti scratched on the elevator walls. Izzi stares at it as we ascend.
His wife, Theresa, is a tall woman in her mid-30s. After taking college courses part-time in the suburbs for several years, she recently began a full-time honors program at a local university. She has never spoken to any of the reporters who have interviewed her husband–not because she’s shy, she says, but because she didn’t want to play the role of writer’s wife. After spending so much time with just Izzi, seeing them together is almost bizarre. The armor comes off inside this home; Izzi seems three inches taller as he walks through the door, and he loses much of the anger evident in his novels. At home he is content. Izzi and Theresa sit close together and hold hands while they talk to me. On their near-daily summer walks around the city waiters and salespeople often ask them if they’re newlyweds. Theresa is one of the few people Guy Izzi completely trusts. But even she doesn’t know everything about him.
“Guy keeps everything separate, in compartments. He doesn’t let his home life interfere with his work, and he never brings what happens out there home. I don’t know most of the people he deals with, and I don’t want to know them. From reading his books, they’re not the sort of people I’d ever want to meet.” Theresa is warmer and more outgoing than her husband. Alone, she is uncomfortable talking about her husband and herself, but she’s open and kind, and not at all snobbish about her husband’s success.
The two met when she was working in a south-suburban restaurant as a waitress, a place he often stopped in for coffee on his way to the racetrack. His confidence was what attracted her to him, she says. The way he walked and talked. And the people he knew.
“He seemed to know everyone. There were always these Mafia types in there, and Guy knew them, would sit down with them and they’d whisper to each other. I knew Guy was stealing then, but I was young, and I didn’t care. He was so polite, lighting my cigarettes and opening doors for me,” habits he still has, 18 years later. “I took him out the first time, borrowed a car and everything. And he took me to Bridgeport, where a friend of his tended bar, and Guy drank all night for nothing. He named our second son after one man who used to hang around where I worked. Nick. He’s dead now.” As are a lot of Izzi’s old friends. “When Nick died we were separated. I think that was right around when Guy had hit bottom, and was living at the barbershop, and was drunk all the time.”
For the first five years of their marriage, Izzi would drink and snort whatever he could get his hands on. He stole whatever wasn’t nailed down, and was convicted of burglary at one point. He and Theresa separated several times; during one separation she was forced to resort to welfare. In an article Izzi wrote for the Chicago Tribune Magazine, he disclosed that when he was drunk he was brutal to his wife.
“I’m a 40-year-old man, and I have to figure that well over half my life is gone,” says Izzi. “I accept responsibility for everything I’ve done, every word I’ve spoken. I’ll carry the weight for it. It was nobody’s fault but my own. I won’t blame anyone for what I was, and I won’t give anyone credit for what I am today. I was the captain of my own ship, and I drove it right into the rocks. It was time to get off the Titanic, and onto the Concorde.”
Over the past ten years, Theresa says, “Guy has made up for every ugliness. He’s atoned for every sin. In everyone’s mind but his own. He’s a loving man, to me. Generous and sensitive. I could do anything, and I mean anything, and he’d forgive me. He has trouble forgiving himself, though. He carries a lot of emotional weight.”
She laughs off her husband’s tough-guy media image. “Guy calls homeless people ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ He can be hard to deal with, and he has a temper, and he’s brusque over the phone with strangers. He has a very hard time trusting people he hasn’t known for a long time. But anyone who thinks he’s a tough guy should see him with Max [the son of their friends Tony and Michelle Fitzpatrick]. He’s on the floor doing Three Stooges skits, making faces, falling over. He loves to make Max laugh.”
“Theresa was always there for me, even when we were apart,” Izzi says. “She always loved me. . . . She was doing everything she could to please me, to try and be what she thought back then was a good wife, and, genius that I am, I did everything to push her away.” A year after Izzi’s last drink, during his and Theresa’s last separation, Izzi wrote Theresa a letter promising her half of the future proceeds of all the money he ever made as a writer. He had published a couple of short stories by that time, and had manuscripts making the rounds in New York. He told her that he couldn’t have done it without her, and that he loved her and would always be grateful to her.
Ten years later, the stakes are a little higher.
“Write this down, so I can’t weasel out of it later: if Theresa wants out, now or at any time in the future, she can have it all. I don’t want it. It’s all over for me without her anyway.”
Izzi loves to walk. Everywhere. If he has a long way to go and it’s cold, he takes a bus. He never takes cabs “unless I’m late,” and he’s rarely if ever late. It’s a point of pride with him to be on time; if the party he’s meeting does not arrive within 15 minutes, Izzi’s gone. When he’s going to meet a research subject he records the specifics on a piece of paper and on an answering machine. In case something goes wrong.
“There is nothing I can’t find out from several different people if I want to learn it bad enough. I can get the information I need in many ways, from different people. Most people who will talk to me want to meet with me first, though, personally. I don’t know why. Maybe they want to see if they can trust me.”
He establishes early on that he can be trusted. He is on record as saying that he will go to jail before ever giving up the name of someone who gave him information. That’s how he learns what’s going on in the city, and who’s lying to whom about what. A detective Izzi knows thinks he’s crazy, that he walks too fine a line between the good guys and the bad guys. “That doesn’t make sense,” says Izzi. “I can’t write from one perspective, from one police officer’s point of view.” The same detective jokes that Izzi couldn’t find the China Club with a map, but he could find the leaders of nearly every major Chicago criminal group by picking up the phone.
“A young man was sitting in my office the other day, 15 years old, younger than my oldest son,” says Izzi. “He claims to have killed two men himself. He thinks the number’s probably higher, but he’s sure of two; he didn’t want to say it was higher because he didn’t want me thinking he was bragging. Can I find that sort of realism riding around with cops? I doubt it.”
Izzi meets his people on the street until he knows them well enough to let them into his office. They are never welcome in his home. His favorite meeting places are public, and crowded. Water Tower Place in the winter, the lakefront in the summer. He pays close attention to his surroundings. He walks and talks fast. He does everything fast, even his writing. He says he doesn’t know how much time he has left.
“I’m a walking heart attack. It’s the way I choose to live. I flat out refuse to be 80 years old and need somebody to feed me and change my diapers. I’d rather go out early.” As long as the kids are educated and Theresa is safe, he says he’ll die a happy man.
Theresa has a slightly different view of this philosophy. “Guy gave up on himself a long time ago. He knows he’ll never be happy. I’m not sure he even wants to be.”
“I take my happiness where I find it,” says Izzi. “I don’t seek it out. Will I ever lie on the beach in the south of France? Never. But I can be talked into having some fun from time to time.” By which he means a card game or a movie, watching videos or playing Nintendo football with his kids. “I’m not what you’d call worldly. I don’t want to go to Europe. I want to write good books, raise my kids, and live my life on my own terms, without kissing anyone’s ass to do it.”
He will break off a friendship abruptly if certain conduct is not preserved. He respects people, and he expects respect in return. He lives by his own code. Lately that code has cost him a lot. Last year he left his publisher, Bantam, over several broken promises. He had been flown out to New York to attend meetings on advertising strategies for his book Tribal Secrets. He’d seen storyboards for TV commercials and mock-ups of print ads. A few days later all the promised advertising was canceled with no explanation; Izzi wasn’t told about it until after his last hardcover copy had been shipped. Izzi told his publisher that he was a dishonorable liar–to him, the worst form of insult. And now he can’t publish any books under his name for at least three years, while his contract is being resolved. “I walked away from a sure six-figure income.” Not an easy thing to do. Maybe not even a smart one. But not his first problem with a publisher, either.
“I made a lot of money, and I gave a lot of it away. Everyone was telling me that I was going to be the Next Big Thing. After I dumped [them], my editor was running up and down the halls, screaming how she’d made me.” That editor, the same woman who told a local reporter that Izzi was “the second coming of Nelson Algren,” now won’t allow his name to be mentioned in her presence. Izzi laughingly says, “A lawyer there is telling people she edited my books. She couldn’t edit her checkbook.” He says he was also being pressured into writing things he didn’t want to write. The sort of book that worked last year, for somebody else. “They want serial killer, they want yuppie in danger. They want courtroom drama. They want recycled Turow, Clancy, or Harris.” He refused to give it to them. “The problem I’m having today is that a lot of publishers want me to write The Booster [his fourth book, and one of his best sellers] over and over again. I love that book, and I always will, but it’s time to move on.” He’s written several recent manuscripts, but try as he and his agents might, there is no publisher willing to take a chance with him right now. Who wants to wait a potential three years to publish his work?
The political-correctness police are in his way, too. “I wrote a book about a gay boxer, an in-your-face, here-I-am type, and a homophobic cop he had to work with. I got rejection letters that were more praising and complimentary than my best acceptance letters. “Wonderful book, brilliantly flawed characters, exceptionally well written.”‘ The problem: Izzi is not gay.
He had the same problem with a book he wrote that has all black characters, set in Englewood. The only white characters are two crooked cops who appear in “maybe ten pages of a 400-page book. I was told I didn’t have a right to write a book about black people. I was told that there are no black doctors or shrinks who have moved back to the ghetto to help their people. I told them they didn’t have to come to Chicago to see such people, all they had to do was go uptown, to Harlem, and they’d find dedicated black professionals who turned their backs on rich incomes to help their people for peanuts. Just like the ones in my book, which they say don’t exist, because they themselves have never met them.”
What it comes down to, in his mind, is other people’s perceptions. Those of people who buy, market, and sell books, of people who formulate protests at bookstores, of people who make threats. And not just groups like Romantic Violence.
“There are special-interest groups who will stomp all over your rights in order to see that their own are preserved, or granted,” and politicians pay attention to organized groups of voters no matter what their agenda. Izzi doesn’t think very highly of politicians; he sees the day coming when there will be regulations over not only what we watch on TV but what can be written in books. “What’s best for all of society has taken a major backseat to what’s best for the largest organized group of people who donate money to the politicians. Those are two very different things. But if you don’t play the game, you don’t get the benefits.”
He sees every day, he says, how misguided perceptions get in the way of reason. “I wrote a book called Prowlers that had a strong black female as the main character. It got exceptional reviews; nearly everyone called it my best book of the nine that were [then] published. I toured for it and was interviewed on a radio station in Washington, D.C. The interviewer wanted to know where my strong black male characters were. He was irate. He hadn’t read any of the other books, and he thought I was insulting black men, that in some of the passages, Femal’s [the main character in Prowlers] feelings about her community were racist. But he was looking for racism. I hadn’t written it. And I didn’t get one letter from a black female thanking me for portraying a positive black female in a best-selling book. But I always get plenty of mail from people with axes to grind, who perceive that they’ve been insulted.”
Izzi’s response to such people is “Go in peace, but go.” He doesn’t open mail that doesn’t have a return address, and he never finishes reading a letter that begins with “I am outraged” or “How dare you.” He rarely responds to fan mail, either. He thinks that if people get to know him, they may be disappointed by what they find.
It is a cold night, a Sunday. Earlier the Bears lost. Izzi loves boxing and football, and he bets on televised games with his lawyer. He is ahead so far for the year. If he winds up losing he may not be able to pay his lawyer, but he appears unworried. We are sitting on a low cement flower planter beside the John Hancock building, drinking coffee. Izzi loves to watch people. He and Theresa spent many hours in this spot during the summer. It’s winter now, but he hasn’t changed his habits.
Izzi scowls down at a copy I’m showing him of his father’s criminal record; it’s several pages long. Even though his father spent much of Izzi’s childhood in prison, Izzi hadn’t realized there’d been so many arrests. He gives me back the papers, his face grim. In a voice filled with barely controlled anger, he says, “You don’t want to confuse me with my father.” He did try to emulate him for a time when he was young, but today he considers that water under the bridge and will not discuss it. “I never bad-mouthed my father before, and I won’t do it now that he’s 70. I won’t do it after he’s dead. If you want to talk to him, I suggest you go and find him. He’s around.” But Izzi doesn’t know where; they haven’t spoken in six years.
I am given access to a state secret: Guy Izzi’s home phone number. He has put no restrictions on what I ask him, whom I talk to, or what I write. But he tells me that if I want to speak to his family I will have to contact them on my own. So I run down his oldest sister, Fabian Fisher, the only member of Izzi’s biological family who has any contact with him today. Izzi also has a twin sister he doesn’t speak to, and a younger sister he won’t even discuss. They have, he says, “their own issues to deal with.”
“Guy was a human punching bag,” Fabian tells me. “A very battered child, physically and emotionally. My grandmother hated him because he looked like our father, and we lived with her when our dad was in jail. She would use any excuse to beat Guy up or call him the most disgusting names.” And she wasn’t the worst. Fabian recalls a time when the teenage Guy had pushed back when his mother was hitting him. He was banished to the basement to await the imminent arrival of an uncle, who had warned Izzi that he would “spill his blood all over the walls” for any misbehavior. Izzi escaped through a basement window and stayed gone for two days.
Izzi dropped out of school at 16 and joined the Army as soon as he turned 17. “Guy went into the Army to get away from what was at home,” Fabian says. “I got married when he was in boot camp and got out myself.” At 16 Izzi’s closest friend, Charlie Kuffle, was killed in a car accident on the S-curve that connects the east side to Hegewisch. Charlie hated fast driving. He would get out of a car that was speeding. Neither he nor Izzi had a driver’s license, and they’d beg rides or hitchhike to their hangout, in Hegewisch.
“When Charlie died, Guy went nuts,” Fabian recalls. “Our father had just gotten out of jail, and Guy was in terror of him. Charlie and Guy were always together, always. When we got the call that Charlie died, we thought Guy was in the car, too.” Which set their father off on a search mission. He found his son collapsed on a curb in Hegewisch, crying, his face buried in his hands. “Guy had gotten out of the car a few minutes before the wreck,” to go off to try to find a girl he liked who had a crush not on him but on Charlie. “It was the first time I ever saw my father worried about my brother.”
Izzi will only say that he and Charlie had joined the Army together, and he went in alone. He says the first month was hell. After that he did all right. He came out of the Army a sergeant, to a home life that hadn’t changed.
“Guy would move back home and get into fights with our mother, then go and live in rented rooms in Hegewisch. Finally, when he was 20 or 21, he just stayed out there.” Everyone else in the family pretty much lost touch with him in the early 80s, right after he quit drinking and was moving from one apartment to another.
Fabian Fisher says her brother re-created an incident from their childhood in his most autobiographical novel, Tribal Secrets. The father and mother in the book are not based on his parents, Izzi claims. But the hero is so obviously Izzi that it’s surprising the book was published as fiction. Babe Hill is a television actor on the verge of fame and fortune who is unsure that’s really what he wants. The Hills live in a house similar to the house Izzi lived in at the time he wrote the book. Hill has two teenage sons, one with an interest in the weather (Izzi’s son Gino wants to study meteorology). The fictional family lived in the village of Park Forest, where the Izzis lived for four years.
In one of the novel’s most telling scenes, a young Babe Hill and his siblings are told by the nuns at their Catholic school (Izzi went to Saint Columba’s) to stand out in the hall. They think they are being punished, but actually the nuns are telling the other children in their classes that Babe Hill’s father has been arrested and warning them not to tell his children. According to Fabian, with the exception of the gender of the children (they’re all boys in the book), the scene was an exact replica of what actually occurred. Also in the book are flashback scenes in which Babe’s father brutally beats his wife. The Izzi home was a violent place, Fabian recalls. “Guy would hide under the bed screaming.” Later, she says, he would attack his father. At last, at 18, while home on leave, Izzi beat his father senseless. The relationship never healed.
Izzi’s only remark is typically cryptic. “Men who beat on people weaker than themselves are cowards. It doesn’t matter how physically strong they are. Or how many people they’ve killed. They’re cowards. Cowards with guns, cowards with baseball bats, cowards with muscles, whatever. They’re still nothing but cowards.”
Fabian thinks every book her brother writes is a way of fighting the fear he still lives with. She thinks he sometimes even goes out of his way to alienate people, people who she thinks must recognize themselves between the pages. Izzi thinks if you can’t stand up to your fear, then you should be pumping gas somewhere instead of writing books. One of the most evil characters he has ever created is Edna Rose, who stalks Babe Hill in Tribal Secrets. She is, to him, a metaphor for success. Babe, with the help of his wife and best friend (based on Izzi’s wife and best friend, a police detective sergeant) escapes from Edna’s clutches. “It took courage for Babe to overcome what happened with Edna,” he says.
Publishers, in Izzi’s view, don’t have a lot of courage. “They can jump all over a controversy and capitalize on it once it occurs, but they don’t want to touch anything that might bring them grief, or a lawsuit, or picket signs in front of their fucking Fifth Avenue ivory-tower office buildings. They want safe books, they want books that won’t upset anyone. I’d bet my life that if they’d had foreknowledge of the death sentence Khomeini was gonna give Rushdie, The Satanic Verses would never have been published.” It disappoints him, but it won’t stop him. He is writing a screenplay for what he calls “the gay book” and trying to get financing for it–which is all the more amazing because he has refused to sell the movie rights to any of his books since his first novel, The Take, was made into a TV movie five years ago.
“They took a book set in Chicago at Christmas and filmed it in Miami in September. It starred Larry Manetti and Ray Sharkey. Not one character was depicted as I wrote him. Not one scene was transferred from the book. All they used was the title. I’ll live with it. I didn’t have to sell it.”
This time he’s looking for a strong director who will do justice to what he’s written. One who would deal with the actors, who would play the role of collaborator. Because Izzi himself isn’t much of a collaborator, or a joiner.
“I joined one outfit, a writing group, on a bet,” he says. Novelist Andrew Vachss, whom Izzi refers to as a brother, had bet him that if he joined his next book would be nominated for one of the group’s awards. He joined, and not one but the next two novels were nominated, in the same year. Izzi lost the bet, and allowed his membership to lapse. “I’m not a lapdog, and I can’t stand networking. If you have to bring knee pads to the party they can keep their awards.”
It’s late at night, and we’re back in Izzi’s office. Despite his legal and financial troubles, he does not regret the tens of thousands of dollars he’s given to child-abuse shelters and shelters for homeless and battered women. He recently bought 36 pairs of brand-name basketball shoes for the residents of a south-side home for troubled youth, and he’s donating 100 percent of his royalties from Tony’s Justice to the same place. He regrets only two things: that he won’t be making any donations for a while, and the money he loaned to deadbeats he thought were his friends. He blames himself for misjudging their character, saying he was “overly generous.”
He praises other Chicago writers; he thinks Barbara D’Amato (Hard Women) is the best “pure writer” in the city and calls Connie Fletcher (What Cops Know) the “best oral historian I’ve ever read.” He says it’s about time women crime writers have begun to make their way onto the national best-seller lists. “There always seems to be something working against them. Some small-time, petty, and unpublished male reviewer holds their success against them. And some of it’s so subtle. . . . A couple of books back, Sara Paretsky got a rave review in [Publisher’s Weekly] and they still had to call her character “feisty.’ When was the last time you heard a male character referred to in that manner?” But he won’t complain about bad reviews for his own books. “I don’t write for reviewers, or for editors, or for publishers, or for Hollywood movie moguls. I write for the reader. Period. Only losers have to beef all the time. Any loser can come up with a rationale, a justification, someplace to lay the blame for the fact that they’re losers. Winners don’t have to do that.”
Izzi is looking out his window at a man standing on the corner in the sleet. The man is shouting angry, unintelligible words at passing cabs and buses. The few people on the street give him a wide berth. “A friend of mine took him a sandwich once, from Burger King down the street. He accepted it, then threw it against the wall.”
Izzi knows about being up against walls. He claims he gets shoved against them regularly by Chicago’s finest. They want to know what he’s doing in certain neighborhoods late at night. The cops think he’s buying or selling drugs, so they stop him and search him and don’t take any chances when they do it. Izzi doesn’t enjoy it, but he doesn’t take it personally, either. “I’d check me out too if I were a cop and saw me walking down the street at three in the morning.”
The only traffic ticket he’s gotten in years was written at two in the morning as he was driving out of Cabrini-Green, where he’d been doing research for a book. He was a white man in a Lincoln; what else could he be doing except trading in drugs? “I turned right on red where there was a sign prohibiting it. It was really a bogus ticket. I didn’t see the sign, and besides, who’s around at two in the morning in the middle of January?” The police never recognize him. He likes it better that way.
“When that beating happened, last February, I was letting [a young writer friend of his] share office space with me in another building, further south. There were two men on the floor when I came up that night, burglarizing another office, I guess.” Izzi unlocked and walked through the third-floor fire door and they attacked him, escaping when he fell. “In my arrogance I thought it was an assassination attempt,” Izzi laughs. “I was swinging like crazy, my back to the door, protecting the turf I thought they wanted. All they wanted was out.”
An hour later his friend arrived and convinced Izzi to call the police. “Two women arrived–now remember, I’ve got a witness to all this, watching everything. A black and Hispanic team. The Hispanic was in charge. She says, ‘Why’d you wait so long to call us?’ Very suspicious. I didn’t feel the need to tell her that I had to go throw up first. I didn’t tell her that I had to steal some ice out of World Tattoo Gallery to put on my face and hands, then try to stop my heart from beating a mile a minute. I didn’t tell her that I was scared to death, or that I was a few weeks away from turning 40, and for the first time I was feeling it. I didn’t tell her that I had to somehow find a way to explain what happened to my wife, who hadn’t seen me like this in a number of years, or that my knuckle hurt like hell and I wanted to soak it for a while. In fact, I didn’t tell her anything. So she asks me, ‘Come on, tell me the truth. Your girlfriend’s husband did this to you, didn’t he?,'” Izzi pulls on his cigarette, smiling at the memory. “It’s not the sort of thing you hear when you’re traveling around in the backseat of a limo.”
To tide his family over until his legal problems are resolved, Izzi has taken some fast money to write a couple of books under a pseudonym. He finds it ironic that the name he struggled to bring dignity to is no longer one he can use. His father, upset over something Izzi had written, once told him “Change your fucking name!” before he slammed the phone down in Izzi’s ear. The first book, Special Victims, was released in February; the name on the cover is Nick Gaitano.
He’s writing the second Gaitano book now. It’s about phone sex. Izzi has run up staggering phone bills, but he’s having fun. He says this is the only book he’s ever done where his sources aren’t eager to meet him. His problem, he says, has been in convincing the women who work the phones that he is actually doing research for a book. They think he’s in law enforcement, or trying to find out how to start up his own phone-sex line, or just trying to get off. After calling one line he got an immediate callback from a man who warned him to “stay away from my bitches.” Izzi has already written this man’s scenes. They are not complimentary. He loves that sort of thing; it’s in everything he writes. It’s his way of getting back at everyone who has ever tried to hurt him.
“I spent ten years of my life writing for free, scratching, clawing, trying to get published, praying every day for something good to happen. Throughout my life, for as long as I can remember, I always felt like an outsider looking in, and I thought everyone in there was warm and happy and having a hell of a good time. And then I got in, I battled my way right through the front door. Money came in, and so-called literary acclaim. And I kicked that door right down and swaggered inside, ready to take my place at the table. I took one look around, and skulked right back out. It wasn’t warm and happy in there. It was cold and phony and it stunk. And the people were boring.” He won’t allow himself to be bored.
“I’ve never wanted to be anything but a writer. That’s it, since I was a little kid, that was the dream. I do have a writing talent, but that doesn’t mean I’m a pleasant dinner companion or a witty party guest. That’s not the life I want. That’s so shallow, so phony, so self-centered that it makes me sick to remember wanting it. My family’s important.” Izzi points at his computer. “Here’s what’s important.” He waves his cigarette toward the window. “Out there’s what’s important. I long ago accepted the fact that I’m never going to live up to the so-called potential the big shots all told me I had; I know I’ll never see the New York Times best-seller list. They don’t understand that I’ve got different priorities. I’ve got a son who’s a straight-A student, and another one getting ready to go off to college, and after that he’ll run around the country and chase tornadoes. They’ll be happy adults, I believe that. We were able to give them that. And Theresa, as long as I’m alive, I’ll always have her.” Izzi pauses. He seems almost relieved, now that the weight is off his shoulders, that the pressure to become a “star” is finally gone.
He walked away from his career, and now he’ll have to fight to regain what he once had, maybe, if he’s unlucky, three long years from now. If he sells a book after those three years, it will take yet another year to publish it. Izzi doesn’t think he’ll be able to hold out that long, but he isn’t concerned. He seems to be at peace. The wolf owns the night, and Eugene Izzi is finally back in the arena, perhaps the only place on earth where he has always felt welcome.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Mike Tappin.