As part of my winter break reading, I decided to tackle a book of essays that seemed, on the surface, interesting. Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt caught my eye because Sarah Vowell said it was great. I love Sarah Vowell, and I think she is one of the funniest humans alive, so with her encouragement (okay, so she didn’t call me on the phone and tell me to buy the book, but she did allow her quote to be used on the back jacket of the book), I bought the book and looked forward to reading. I am nearing the end, and not sure that I can muster the energy to finish. The book is terrible, boring, and even in the most strange moments of the book, I find the writing flaccid and dry. Oswalt claims to be a member of Gen X, but his pop culture references, REM lyrics aside, don’t resonate with me, a fellow Gen X’er. Maybe the South Side of Chicago from 1975-1985 was somehow cut off from the other influences on Gen X’ers, or maybe, because Oswalt is a guy, his influences are narrow and well, testosterone infused. Sort of like fancy infused vodka. Only not as tasty or invigorating.
Oswalt’s book is purportedly essays that reflect upon his coming of age as a stand up comic. Yeah, okay, so what? They are not funny and they make me wonder what kind of stand up comic this guy is. How does he make a living on this stuff? Frankly, the entire time I was reading, I kept thinking, if this guy can publish this, why shouldn’t I publish a memoir of growing up on the South Side? It might be funnier, and hopefully, it would be less narrowly focused on weird guy bands of the early 80s, zombies, and horror flicks.
Thankfully, my other vacation reading included Joe Meno’s Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir. I am thrilled to discover Meno, a fellow south sider, and someone who liberally references Ford City and Midway, AND who recalls them in the way I remember them. I’d never read Chicago stories that captured the South Side with such honesty, beauty, wonder, and pain — or with such vivid description of a place and time. When I read Meno’s stories, I felt like I was in the kitchen of a relative, rehashing old times, gossiping, or just talking about our lives. His characters are people I know, or knew, and they are clearly in focus — his language revealing them in all of their humanity.
The opening of Meno’s short story, “Midway” is particularly poignant.
It is bad to go to the airport to steal strangers’ bags. I know this. My bother, Junior, on the other hand, goes up there every day and comes home with someone else’s suitcase It’ unbelievable to me. He is just a kid, you know, a sophomore in high school, and like everybody, I guess, he may be looking to find something he has lost.
Junior’s older brother, the narrator of this story, is only a kid himself, working already a the Solo cup factory, taking care of Junior.
When given the choice between local story tellers and New York Times best sellers, I vote hands down for the local guy.