Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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The Chicago Cubs and World Wars (or why the Cubs must win)

Like many Chicagoans—I might be able to say most—I feel both excitement and trepidation at the prospect of a Cubs World Series appearance. The reasons for excitement are obvious. My trepidation, however, is complex and affects more than just sports.

I need to note that, while I’m a passive baseball fan, I was raised by White Sox fans and miss old Comiskey Park more than I love Wrigley. This does not mean I loathe Wrigley  or anything similarly asinine. I celebrated the White Sox 2005 victory having long before shed the usual sense of unfortunate tribalism that accompanies Chicago baseball. Still, that tribalism is a special-enough force, so I should disclose my roots. If the two Chicago teams met in the World Series, I’d probably wear a Fisk jersey while watching the games. That won’t happen this year, so Go Cubs!

The consequences of a Cubs World Series title would be monumental. For many, it would be akin to a religious experience, the revelation of truths, or transubstantiation to a Billy Goat. Some Chicago legends might rise from the dead. Of course, being only one out or, Lord forbid, one strike away from Nirvana also sets one up for monumental heartbreak, and if any team has the karma to cub-it-up, it’s the Chicago Cubs. Perhaps instead of a Bartman we’ll see Game Six affected by a douchebag streaker running out to interfere with a routine fly ball, ruining everything.

But that sort of trepidation is minor compared to this unscientific but curious historical observation I’d like to offer: The Cubs do seem to have a knack for correlating their World Series appearances with World Wars, the rise of demagogues and one Great Depression. The 1918 World Series, mind you, saw its last game played on September 11th. The next day, the Americans attacked, acting alone during WWI for the first time, fighting on the brutal Western Front.

In 1929, the Cubs’ World Series loss occurred only 15 days before Black Tuesday. Of course, the Cubs appearances in the 30’s correlate with a variety of noteworthy dates leading up to the rise of Germany and culminating with the 1938 occupation of the Sudetenland.  The 1945 appearance occurred with the war already having ended, but who’s splitting hairs?

Now the world finds itself in a precarious position that does not need an intro. And the Cubs have a double digit lead in their Division as the magic number continues to decline. I shudder.

It must be said that the aforementioned calamities all correlate with Cubs’ World Series losses. So, this October, dear world, please note that we should *all* be Chicagoans. If the Cubs win the National League, by all that is good and just in the universe, may they play to four more victories. We root against them at our own peril.


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Taco trucks: the shocking truth

Back when I was a kid growing up in Cicero, at that time almost equally (at least in my immediate neighborhood) made up of Eastern European and Mexican families, there were ways of expanding your ethnic identity. Ok…expanding is the wrong word. You could become an “honorary” Mexican or Lithuanian by going through initiations.

To be baptized an honorary Lithuanian, you had to eat a jar of herring or a huge chunk of homemade headcheese. My friend Juozas and I came up with this initiation, an ironic one, at least in my friend’s case, as he had never eaten either herring or headcheese in his life. The child of displaced persons,  he still qualifies, despite his culinary tastes, for Lithuanian dual citizenship. The Mexican boys who gagged over pig nose jelly will never be able to claim this.

Becoming an honorary Mexican was much easier.  You had to lie down and let your Mexican (and honorary Mexican) friends kick your ass for three minutes. The only rule was no punching in the face or balls. In truth, the three minutes often stretched to four or five.

We did not do this because we valued multiculturalism or envied each other’s identities. We were just boys finding ways to fuck with each other in the packs we joined for protection and friendship.

These initiations, like other rites and customs of the street, depended on unspoken but clear codes. Everybody understood that if your friend had gone through the trouble of taking a three (or five) minute beating,  or if he had slurped down a quivering cube of pig ass—which, mind you, often resulted in real tears—you had to defend him in the event that bullshit came his way.

So, as an honorary Mexican who oversaw the baptisms of a few dozen honorary Lithuanians, let me say a few things about the prospect of taco trucks on every corner.

To America, this would represent a culinary revolution of a magnitude not seen since the invention of the Weber grill. If there were a taco truck on even one corner in most any random town of less than 50,000 people between Youngstown, Ohio and Limon, Colorado, the quality of the local cuisine would improve by a factor so large that I cannot find any tool to help me calculate it. If there were taco trucks at both ends of my block, I’d have hardly any need to go to a grocery store.

A taco truck is superior, both as a food delivery system and a purveyor of quality, than any McDick’s, Burger Thing, Undies, Taco Hell, Beef’n’Cream, Pulverz, Shitway, Jimmy Shlong’s or any other such dump. A taco truck is a civilized place to eat and sells a food item with a rich and fascinating history, linked to lifestyle changes among the working class, specifically to men mining silver. Its development is not unlike the arrival and evolution of the pasty in Michigan’s iron mines or the Vienna Beef dog on Chicago’s South Side, the latter during the Depression. So the taco has more in common with the story of class struggle than does any pumpkin latte or chocolate stout.

So, bring it on. A taco truck beside every school, across the street from every workplace, down the road from your town hall, public library, place of worship and watering hole. Especially the watering hole. Because the only thing better than a taco following a night of raucous frolic is the tamale guy.

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Algren reading lineup announced

Chicago friends, Volumes Bookcafe has announced the lineup for the September 17th reading celebrating the writing of Nelson Algren and the publication of Mary Wisniewski’s new biography of Algren. I am so excited and humbled to be reading beside these enormously talented people. Click on the names below for more info about these writers.

ROGER REEVES is an award winning poet and professor at UIC. He’s the winner of a Whiting Award and other honors.

LINDSAY HUNTER is the author of the novel Ugly Girls and the story collections Don’t Kiss Me and Daddy’s. Her new novel, Eat Only When You’re Hungry, will be out next year.”

JAC JEMC is the author of The Grip of It, forthcoming from FSG Originals in 2017. Her first novel, My Only Wife (Dzanc Books) was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award, and her collection of stories, A Different Bed Every Time (Dzanc Books) was named one of Amazon’s best story collections of 2014. She edits nonfiction for Hobart and teaches writing at Loyola, Northeastern Illinois, and Lake Forest College.

JIM DAVIS is a graduate of Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Knox College. He reads for TriQuarterly and his work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, The Harvard Crimson, Poetry Daily, Midwest Quarterly, and California Journal of Poetics, among others. He has received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations and won many contests, including the Line Zero Poetry Prize. In addition to writing and painting, Jim is an international semi-professional American football player.

I hope to see you at this exciting event in the heart of Algren’s Wicker Park.

Here’s a look at the cover of Mary’s book:

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Photo courtesy of Chicago Review Press.

 


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Have I ever been this nervous?

(Ok…maybe I was more nervous when I learned my wife was pregnant.)

But yesterday I received the invitation to read from Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make at The Wicker Park and West Town Lit Fest. The reading and celebration will take place at Volumes Bookcafe in anticipation of the release of the new Nelson Algren biography. A list of other readers is being compiled, and I’ll publicize when I have more info.

To say I’m humbled is…

Um…yeah…

Obviously, my novel, The Fuguehas been compared to Nelson Algren’s work. Rick Kogan did it on WGN radio, expanding what a few reviewers have noticed. While I wasn’t channeling Algren while writing The Fugue—I’ve actually not read all of Algren’s books—what I’ve read has had a serious impact on my development as a writer.

City on the Make, a prose poem of less than 110 pages, was a punch-in-the-mouth catalyst in my life and career. I was 19 when I first came across it in a writing class at UIC taught by Mike Barrett. Algren’s bloody-knuckle, gilded paean first showed me Chicago as something besides the city where I happened to be living. I think it’s natural for creative people to wish to “get away” for something like “true inspiration”. Algren taught me to start looking around and understanding where I am, to wake up to it.

What struck me was how the language was tough and gentle all at once. Algren knew the hustler and the square equally well, identified with both, could inhabit both minds, and yet his final impact somehow transcends that polarity, sees the world from an elevated position. The poem begins not with any urban brawn but an ode to the prairie and Lake Michigan:

To the east were the moving waters as far as eye could follow. To the west a sea of grass as far as wind might reach.

Waters restlessly, with every motion, slipping out of used colors for new. So that each fresh wind off the lake washed the prairie grasses with used sea-colors: the prairie moved in the light like a secondhand sea. 

Those words, for me, placed Chicago in the natural world. They oriented me, helped me see there wasn’t any difference between a city and the country except for what our minds concocted. From that moment, I was seeing my city—and by extension, all cities—with a different set of eyes.

Unlike New York and Los Angeles, Chicago doesn’t have talent for glamour or glitz. The best we can do is provide ourselves with alleys where we throw our garbage, leave it (mostly) out of sight. But our segregation and corruption and frozen sidewalks and humid Augusts are right there in the open.

My grandfather lamented when the guy who used to renew his drivers license for a bottle of scotch ended up shitcanned. That brand of corruption worked perfectly well. Why ruin it?

It took me years to learn that, outside Chicago, you just needed to kiss your manager’s ass to get ahead. In Chicago it takes finesse to learn who the real player is; the boss is normally a stooge set up to take the fall when shit got real, as it inevitably would. So the stooge is sacked, apologies are made, a new stooge is hired and the hustle’s back on. In Chicago, everything is a front that’s out in the open. You are laundering money just by virtue of working in this city, and it happens whether your know it or not.

Algren knew this well…so so well. He also knew it was unusual, particular, worth a hundred pages. It’s true that the prose is mannered, sometimes awkward. But so is the city.

To get the chance to read from this little huge book, and only a few blocks from Algren’s home in Wicker Park, is going to be…yeah…I’m just elated.

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Wicker Park Fest, Day 2

So…today Chicago faces isolated thunderstorms and another +90 degree day. Yesterday a crowd of a few hundred stood before the main stage at Wicker Park Fest and sang Que Sera Sera along with a band, this while battleship-gray thunderheads approached. The sky opened. Lightning struck. Adults and children danced. It was beautiful.

Also, some came around Volumes Book Cafe to cool down, grab a drink, then purchase and have their copies of The Fugue signed. I spoke to readers from as far away as Germany and Puerto Rico (and Madison, Wisconsin…and Laredo, Texas…and Aurora, Illinois…and a town in Maine whose name I will never remember).

I’ll be at Volumes again today (er…at an indoor table). Come check out Chicago’s newest bookstore between points of festival frolic. 1474 N Milwaukee Avenue. There’s a chance I might sell out before 4:00, as we have a limited amount of copies left.

 

Come grab one of these copies before they’re gone

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What are people saying about The Fugue?

“Magisterial…like Dostoevsky…” (Chicago Tribune)

“A welcome addition to the bookshelf of Chicago authors…” (WGN Radio)

“A masterpiece of literary fiction…” (Centered on Books)


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Wicker Park Fest: signing and selling books in the heat!

If you’ve been meaning to get a copy of The Fugue and would like to meet me in person, this weekend is a great chance.

It’s Wicker Park Fest, and Volumes Book Cafe is doing a number of things, including hosting live acoustic musicians and letting me chat with customers. I might be inside or outside in the tent, depending on the hour, but you’re sure to find me if you come between 1:00-4:00 today and tomorrow (July 23, 24).

Volumes Book Cafe is at 1474 N Milwaukee. Wicker Park Fest is one of America’s very best outdoor street festivals. It features food vendors, live music, arts and crafts and fun for everyone. Come buy a book and hang out in the heat.

Have yet to hear of The Fugue? The Chicago Tribune compared it to Dostoevsky and called it “magisterial”.

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A visit to Tribune Tower

So…I got to talk to Rick Kogan on WGN Radio last night. It was an extraordinary experience, and I have more to say about it than I’ll be able to include in a short blog post.

Rick Kogan is a journalist and radio personality with almost six decades of experience covering Chicago. He has spoken to and written books about idols of mine, and when it comes to the subject of Chicago, is clearly among the most knowledgeable people alive. To have sat in a studio chair next to him equals one of the most fucking amazing experiences of my life. To hear him call my book Algren-esque, Dostoevsky-esque and Dybek-esque on the air left a strange, giddy tremble in my hands that has yet to go away.

It was also humbling and head-spinning to find myself in the Tribune Tower. While I had walked past the building countless times, I had never been inside. Yesterday, I rode my bike down Madison from Oak Park, past the former site of Fort Dearborn, over the Chicago River, then I walked up to the tower with a sense of awe and connectedness to the history of my city. So many great people (and, to be fair, some extraordinary and colorful assholes) had walked through those doors and worked in that building.

I’ll say it was equally exhilarating and intimidating to step up to the receptionist and let her know I was scheduled to talk on the radio. I thought only babble or drool might exit my mouth once someone gave me a microphone. But it all worked out. You can listen here, and please do share with the book lovers in your live.

Some photos:

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