David Mamet in the Age of Prohibition

With his first novel in nearly 20 years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright tackles Chicago gangsters in the roaring '20s, with mostly successful results.

David Mamet
Custom House
Feb 2018

The style – particularly the dialogue – of David Mamet can be a hard sell. Lots of repetitious back and forth, peppered with a healthy dose of alpha male swagger, often spiraling into complex philosophical minutiae. It’s this kind of naked, in-your-face approach that garnered Mamet a Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), his celebrated play about the cutthroat world of real estate. In addition to his work as a playwright, he’s also become a lauded film director and screenwriter, earning raves for movies like House of Games (1987), Things Change (1988), State and Main (2000) and Redbelt (2008), among others.

While his writing has mostly consisted of nonfiction (including The Secret Knowledge, his controversial 2011 pro-conservative screed), Mamet has written his share of novels, but the last one was published in 2000 – the complex, experimental head-scratcher Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources. For fans of his long-form fiction, Mamet is back in the game with Chicago, a tale of gangsters, murder, and newspaper men in the book’s titular city. Set in the ’20s, this is somewhat familiar territory for Mamet, not just because Chicago is his birthplace and he knows a thing or two about the Windy City, but the screenplay of The Untouchables, Brian DePalma’s 1987 gangster epic, was written by Mamet. He knows his way around a tommy gun.

Despite the predictably knotty dialogue, Chicago tells a fairly simple story, centering around Chicago Tribune writer (and former World War I airman) Mike Hodge, who writes about the town that’s currently steeped in battling Italian and Irish organized crime factions – Al Capone leading the former and Dion O’Banion the latter. It’s all routine journalism of its time until Mike’s girlfriend, Annie Walsh, is gunned down in front of him and it becomes personal. Is the mob to blame? Is it related to the connections in Annie’s family? Hodge shifts from writer to gumshoe as the mystery takes shape, layers of characters are introduced, and our protagonist hits the illegal hooch a little too hard in an attempt to stifle his rage and sadness.

Effectively mixing fictional characters with real-life ones is one of the hallmarks of good historical fiction, and here, Mamet does a solid job. Peekaboo, the African-American whorehouse madam and Hodge confidant, fellow writer and drinking buddy Clement Parlow, and career criminal Jojo Lamarr are among the made-up characters that pepper the lively story. They live comfortably alongside living, breathing Chicago criminals like O’Banion, Capone – who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in the book – and Capone bookkeeper Jake Guzik.

Additionally, trailblazing African-American aviator Bessie Coleman is also featured heavily in the novel, albeit in the form of flashbacks where Hodge recalls his brushes with her during the war (and typically, most people who come in contact with Hodge during the course of the book are star-struck when they learn of this connection). Memories of “The Great War” make frequent appearances in Chicago, as the wartime experience holds painful and often symbolic memories for Hodge.

It can occasionally be a bit of a slog to get through certain sections of Chicago, not because of the presence of what’s commonly known as “Mamet-Speak” – which is largely kept in check in favor of exposition and narration – but because the dialogue itself tends to be prose of the most purple shade:

“Why’d they shoot him?” Mike said.

“Let us leave conjecture at the province of philosophy, as freeing as it is,” Parlow said, “and submit ourselves to the tyranny of fact.”

Or this priceless bit of pontificating from one of Hodge’s fellow journalists :

“A newspaper is a joke. Existing at the pleasure of the advertisers, to mulct the public, gratifying their stupidity, and render some small advance on investment for the owners, offering putative employment to their etiolated, wastrel sons, in those young solons’ circuit between the Fort Dearborn Club, and the Everleigh House of Instruction.”

If you’re willing to accept the fact that Mamet tends to occupy his own rarefied air of SAT words and armchair philosophizing, what you’re left with is a juicy, rollicking tale of Chicago from another era. Fans of Mamet’s aggressive, provocative characters and vivid descriptions will be in heaven. Neophytes should be warned: this isn’t your father’s gangster novel.

RATING 7 / 10