Just after the lunch rush on a Tuesday in 2007, a Quiznos franchise in the Loop got an unexpected customer: a coyote. The docile creature walked into the restaurant at about 1:30 p.m., the Chicago Tribune reported, parked itself in front of the soda machine and just lounged until animal control picked it up an hour later.
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The event probably made the Quiznos owner think twice about leaving the door propped open — and it gave Sarah Bruni an idea for a book.
"When I was in graduate school (at Washington University) in St. Louis, I was watching what was going on with coyotes in Chicago and I was really fascinated by the idea of the natural world showing up where it doesn't belong and occupying an urban space," Bruni said by phone from her Brooklyn apartment. "It seems like people in many urban places now are sort of expected to co-exist with wild animals. Seeing them in urban or suburban parks or along the lakefront isn't necessarily such a strange thing because we read about it in the news."
Coyotes add to the fantasy-like nature of Bruni's debut novel, "The Night Gwen Stacy Died," set in an alternate Chicago overrun by the animals. The novel centers on Sheila Gower, a 17-year-old high school senior waiting for something or someone to take her away from her boring life in small-town Iowa.
Gower's escape comes in the form of a 20-something cab driver who calls himself Peter Parker. He spirits her away to the coyote-filled Chicago to rescue a man he's only met in his dreams. During their journey, he calls her by the name of Peter Parker's fictional first love, Gwen Stacy.
The novel is the literary equivalent of a pop music mashup. It includes themes inspired by "Spider-Man," Westerns, coming-of-age novels and Bonnie and Clyde.
"'The Night Gwen Stacey Died' is impossible to categorize and that's what I love best about it," fellow debut novelist Anton DiSclafani wrote in an email. DiSclafani, author of "The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls," met Bruni in a writing workshop at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's a love story, a mystery, a genre bender," DiSclafani wrote. "It's sad, sweet, gripping and tender."
Bruni's imaginative book meditates on the real ways people choose to deal with tragedy. The cab-driver Peter Parker's obsession with "Spider-Man" began at age 6 when the world of a web-slinging superhero helped him to escape from the trauma of his older brother's suicide.
"While I was writing the book, I was interested in exploring the ways that our formative reading experiences inform the identities we create as adults," Bruni said. "I feel like they absolutely have an impact on the way we envision our lives and the people we love. I think we shape who we are based on what we read. Parker certainly does."
Like her characters, Bruni, who is originally from Harvey, went on a sojourn to find herself — and to finish this book. In 2009, she realized that to dedicate enough time and energy to crafting this novel she would need to remove herself from "familiar stimuli," so she moved to Montevideo, Uruguay. There, she taught English in exchange for Spanish lessons and created a "makeshift writing residency" for herself.
"I was living mostly in Spanish in Uruguay, and the only time I got to use my native language was reading these 'Spider-Man' comic books and working on this novel," she said. "All of a sudden I felt like had the full range of my native language to play with. It was a librating experience, and I feel like living the way that I was in a language other than my own was part of what allowed me to get excited enough to get invested in this story to finish it."
In taking on the identity of Gwen Stacy, Gower latches on to anything that will change her life. "She doesn't know what she wants," Bruni said. "She just knows she doesn't want what she is surrounded by."
Toward the end of the novel, Gower, like many 17-year-olds, is still trying to figure out who she wants to be — and whether she can resolve that as Stacy.
After all, lots of comic books end with the superhero hanging up the mask.
Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene for Printers Row Journal.
"The Night Gwen Stacy Died"
By Sarah Bruni, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 278 pages, $14.95