How forgotten is MacKinlay Kantor's "Diversey"? Well, when I looked it up on the Chicago Public Library website, I found only one copy available systemwide, in the closed stacks of the downtown branch — meaning that any reader interested in taking a copy to enjoy at home would be out of luck. A few worn '50s copies with racy pulp covers are available on Amazon, but not much else is mentioned of the novel anywhere else on the Internet. Fifth Star Press' handsome new reissue should remedy that neglect.
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Much like the book's hero, Marry Javlyn, Kantor was born in Iowa and came to Chicago to seek fame and fortune as a writer. He was only 24 when the book, his first, was published. The plot involves a Jewish gangster on the lam, a young switchboard operator from the South Side, a prominent newspaper columnist and various lesser characters and types. There's a big love affair, murders, betrayal and poetry. I imagine Kantor threw just about everything he'd learned of the world up to that point into it, but what struck me first and foremost were his descriptions of Chicago. This isn't a mythical or imagined city but one recounted from firsthand experience, from having walked the streets he wrote about.
The story's center is a rooming house on Cambridge Ave., just off Diversey Parkway, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Marry (short for Marshall) arrives in the city and takes a room there. The plot's set in motion when he finds a wallet in the common bathroom on his floor. It belongs to Abe Wise, a tough guy with a gun tucked into his belt. Another tenant, a girl named Jo, is in Wise's room when Marry returns the wallet. In no time Jo and Marry are in love, and Wise is slipping Marry $50 bills to run errands.
The Messenger is Kantor's stand-in for Chicago's newspaper of record. After striking out at the half-dozen smaller papers, Marry turns to the imposing tower on Michigan Avenue in hopes of finding a job. His career high point up to this moment was sending in a poem and having it published in Rom Pentecost's famed column in The Messenger. Pentecost can't offer a job but invites him to the weekly Tuesday soirees at the downtown hotel where he lives. Much debauchery follows, and Marry is tempted into a world of mysterious blondes, drunken artists and pretense of all kinds.
Unable to find a newspaper job, he takes advantage of Wise's offer of help and gets a do-nothing, overpaid position with the city. This is one of the novel's best parts. The mechanics of obtaining a patronage job as he describes it are funny, horrifying, and — especially for contemporary Chicago citizens — all too familiar.
Hanging over all the proceedings is the long shadow of Prohibition. Much of the violence in the book is committed by warring factions of bootleggers. We continue to live with this kind of violence in Chicago, though these days it's over cocaine and the like rather than Canadian Club whiskey. That makes what happens in this book resonate now.
The book's flaws are those of a young writer overreaching. But overall "Diversey" is a worthwhile link between Theodore Dreiser and Nelson Algren in painting a portrait of Chicago in prose. Kantor would go on to write the screenplay for the noir "Gun Crazy" in 1950 and win a Pulitzer for his Civil War novel "Andersonville" in 1956, but this first book gave him a chance to try out hard-boiled banter, ripe melodrama, and cynical social commentary all in one go.
His '20s Chicago has graft, murder and people rushing all over the place just like our Chicago does. Most of all it's a story of a young man coming to the big city and trying to make something of himself, and that's a story that's never out of date.
Dmitry Samarov is a painter and writer in Chicago. His book, "Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab" was published by University of Chicago Press in 2011.
By MacKinlay Kantor, Fifth Star Press, 320 pages, $16Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun