Powerful Talent

“My feeling,” said John Fink, who has just published an intriguing first novel about a family in high distress, “is that as you age, the mystery of the family you grew up in remains.”

Obviously that’s so. Adults finally begin to figure out their parents a day or two before they understand themselves.

“It was a family that didn’t work very well,” said Fink of his own, “but it wasn’t obvious to anybody outside the family. It’s just that these strains and interconnections that don’t work very well can become very oppressive. I suppose that’s one reason I’m writing. I’m a pretty introspective fellow. I was an introspective child.

“When you’ve felt a sort of pain like that,” he went on, and what he meant was the pain of the sensitive child who doesn’t understand what’s going on around him, “people getting killed in a novel is nothing exceptional. You can write murder mysteries pretty readily.”

So Fink wrote The Leaf Boats. It’s set on Chicago’s North Shore, and it’s about the Gillespies. Old Dutch Gillespie married twice, and each wife bore him a family. Wife number one died in childbirth, and the beautiful young number two was raped and murdered. Years passed, and now his fair daughter Hope has been killed just as brutally. The cops and surviving Gillespies have plenty to sort out.

Two years ago Fink was attending a writers’ conference in New York, and an editor from St. Martin’s Press named Ruth Cavin got up to speak. “She’s a murder-mystery expert,” said Fink. “She said mysteries are no longer the tightly plotted whodunits of the past, but just good stories with mysteries involved. I said, well, that sounds like what I’ve done.

“She also invited people in the audience to send their books in to her. So I went up to her and said, are you serious? She said, sure. So I said, have you got a card? As she was reaching into her purse somebody else came up and distracted her, and she handed me a subway token. I didn’t know what to do with that. I didn’t know if it was a message or what.”

Persevering, Fink got the card and shipped the book. “Eight months later she called me and said she wanted to buy it.”

Fink happily told us that the first reviews have been splendid. “Kirkus called me something I always wanted to be called–‘a powerful talent.’ I don’t know what other expression an author could hunger for more.”

Fink hungered for years and years. He’s 65. He has a career behind him as an important Chicago editor; his major commands were the Tribune’s Sunday magazine from 1963 to ’74 and Chicago magazine from ’77 to ’87. Also in his past are the usual fevers of self-expression–a folio of poetry, a play done in college, one of those 1,500-word unfinishable novels that run hopelessly out of control.

“I didn’t start writing seriously again until 1980,” he told us. “I’d had a heart bypass. I’d had a divorce. I guess I was looking at another kind of life to some extent anyway, and I just started writing. I’d write through the night sometimes, and I’d write on weekends. Kind of obsessively, I guess you’d say. But I really wanted to make my mark.”

Before The Leaf Boats, Fink wrote “six fairly publishable books that didn’t sell.” Then, he said, “I guess I found a way to let myself go. I just sat down and said, What’s really important to me? What kind of values? What circumstances in life? What emotions? Even, what kind of plot devices? I started writing, and I didn’t stop until I was through with it.”

Even so, Fink didn’t expect to be published until he met Ruth Cavin. He’s already sold St. Martin’s a second novel, Libel the Dead–which is a redo of a book he wrote three years ago, before he’d quite figured out how–and he’s at work on another. He lives alone. He keeps his own hours. He says his life’s OK.

What about the dames? we asked. When do you head south to catch the big fish and do the other things that obsess unhappy boys who dream of the day they flaunt their “powerful talent”?

Fink laughed.

The Leaf Boats going to make you rich? we asked.

“It will barely keep me out of debtors’ prison,” he explained. St. Martin’s has left the promotion up to him. So he’s bought himself plane tickets and ranged as far as Los Angeles and Washington to introduce himself to booksellers and ask for consideration.

“In the last two days I’ve hit about 20 bookstores on the North Shore and downtown,” Fink told us. “It’s just slogging away. I come in and ask for a manager and shake his hand and say any interest in my book will be appreciated and anything I can do for you I will do. Meaning signings or whatever. I like getting out in the car and bumming around and shaking hands. But it’s tiring and it takes time.”

It also takes courage, which Fink, at retirement age, seems to have enough of.

Memorializing Comiskey

Yet another proposal is on the table to treat old Comiskey Park with an ounce of respect.

Laboring in the long shadow of the wrecking ball, partisans who once tried to save the entire park are now asking to preserve little more than its silhouette. “We’re fighting over the shards, the scraps,” said Mary O’Connell.

Back in 1989, when the White Sox, the city, and the state of Illinois were cutting their deal for a new stadium, O’Connell (who’s editor of The Neighborhood Works) and her allies in the grass-roots Save Our Sox crusade said nay. Comiskey’s brimming with nearly 80 years of history, they argued. The National Park Service says it’s a national landmark. Why tear it down?

The response of the powers that be was to create the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority and give it one assignment: build a gleaming new stadium and turn the old one into a parking lot. Last summer, a Park District planner named John Mac Manus came forth with a lovely idea. There are other places to park, Mac Manus reasoned; spare old Comiskey’s diamond and playing field and a trace of the old brick arcade. Incorporate them into an enlarged Armour Square Park.

A new citizens’ group, the Save Our Sox Field of Dreams Committee, sprang up to promote the idea. But Peter Bynoe, executive director of the Sports Facilities Authority, laughed out loud, and local residents didn’t get excited. There was concern that too nice a neighborhood park would attract undesirable elements.

The Save Our Sox Field of Dreams Committee collapsed.

The idea O’Connell now supports is even more modest. Happily, it isn’t hers alone. Two months ago Planning Commissioner David Mosena told Bynoe that this proposal was something the city thought would both show some respect for old Comiskey and not cost very much.

Here it is: Build the parking lot, but in its surface embed bricks from the old ballpark that outline the boundaries of the old playing field. Preserve the old infield grass and incorporate it into the north entrance to the new park. And around what was once home plate, create some sort of plaza with a video wall, murals, and what have you.

“Their precious parking lots are all saved,” said O’Connell. “Just because we’re building a new ballpark doesn’t mean we have to obliterate every trace of the old one.”

Bynoe’s reaction isn’t comforting. “We will memorialize the old stadium,” he told us, but since demolishing it will take four to six months he’s in no rush to decide how. And he doesn’t like what’s most charming about O’Connell’s notion–keeping the infield. “You’d have to maintain the grass. You’d have to block off parking,” said Bynoe (actually, the infield would be outside the parking lot). “That becomes an ongoing logistical problem that we’d like to avoid.”

Another nice touch to O’Connell’s plan–if not the version Mosena passed on to Bynoe–is that she remembers McCuddy’s and relocates the vanished bar at the northeast corner of 35th and Shields. Not that this will ever happen. As governor, Jim Thompson vowed the bar would be back, but now he tells us that McCuddy’s can’t reappear on state property without violating various laws, covenants, and the lease agreement with the Sox. But there’s a place on 33rd Street that he says Pudi McCuddy can have if she wants it. Well she doesn’t–it’s too small and too far away.

What Pudi McCuddy (and others, including Joe Feldman, owner and publisher of the Bridgeport News) presume is that Jerry Reinsdorf told Thompson to shove it. The Sox hold exclusive rights to sell food and beverages on the Sports Facilities Authority property. Why should an outside operator be allowed to cut into a sweet deal like that?

No, sentiment has had precious little to do with building the new stadium. In San Angelo, Texas, there’s a museum curator named Robert Bluthardt associated with the Society for American Baseball Research. If old Comiskey can’t be saved, Bluthardt reasoned, it can be remembered, and last month he drove all the way to Springfield to meet officials of the Illinois State Historical Society. He wanted to see if SABR could sponsor a plaque at 35th and Shields.

The possibilities, he found out, were excellent. Looking for local allies, Bluthardt made a blind call to Feldman, who liked the idea so much he immediately pledged the entire $475 the Historical Society demands to cover costs.

State historian Michael Devine said Bluthardt should know by late April whether a review committee has accepted SABR’s application. “It would seem to be an obvious choice,” Devine told us.

Not that obvious. Bluthardt found out to his surprise that until he asked to sponsor a plaque commemorating old Comiskey Park, nobody had. Not the Sox. Not the city. Not the Sports Facilities Authority.

It took somebody from Texas, we said to Devine. “It’s a little bit peculiar,” he agreed, but added generously, “Sometimes it’s the thing that’s right in front of your face you don’t think about.”

Tribune Security

The Tribune, natch, couldn’t resist adding the Tribune Tower to the map it ran of the Saint Patrick’s Day parade route, even though the parade wouldn’t come within four blocks of it. But mysteriously, the Tribune located its headquarters north of Grand Avenue, two blocks from the paper’s actual location. The strike’s over in New York, fellas! You can stop trying to fool terrorists now.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.