A Chicago book that holds special meaning to me
When I was seventeen we read The Razor’s Edge in English Lit and I fell in love with Larry Darrell, the character who is the central focus of the novel. He had come back to Chicago from World War I a changed man, haunted after a buddy on his flight team lost his own life by saving Larry’s. I was certain that, unlike the self-absorbed Isabel, I would have packed up and followed Larry anywhere in his worldwide quest for the “why” of life.
The book, read at a time when I was grappling with my own issues of faith and identity, stayed with me. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t love; I wanted to be Larry Darrell, with that curiosity, wanderlust, and thirst for knowledge.
What made this affinity reasonable in my mind was that the novel’s characters were all from my hometown. Their lives were far more privileged than my own, but I could imagine. They met for drinks at the Blackstone Hotel and lived in fine homes on Astor Street and Lake Shore Drive, addresses that sparkled with elegance and possibility. Addresses I remembered from the backseat of my father’s Buick, during a childhood drive up from a South Side suburb to a cemetery in Evanston. These were the people behind all those windows looking out over the lake.
Though the majority of the action of the book is elsewhere, the characters all come from Chicago, branching out into the world in search of refinement, experience, enlightenment, or escape. There is a lot of eating and drinking and fine clothes and conversation as they meet to catch up and assess each other in various Paris cafes, swank apartments, and rough bars. They circle back from Chicago to India to London, throughout the South of France and Europe, a fraternity bound by similar roots more in common than their current addresses would indicate.
The characters each change, by necessity, tragedy, choice, or because the 1929 stock market crash turned their world upside down, yet again, so soon after the war. They will adjust, it is obvious, because of their Chicago-style resilience and practicality.
To my teenage perspective it meant that my heretofore seemingly boring Midwestern background did not need to limit the reach of my aspirations. I was from Chicago; I had the grit to venture out, win, and/or recover.
Today, I’ve seen a great deal of the world, I live in a condo on Lake Shore Drive (though without a lake view), and everything I write is about the “why.”