By SCOTT SIMON
Watching this year's election, as exciting and historic as it's sometimes been, you could be forgiven for concluding that politics is rote: candidates give the same speech, use the same carefully selected clichés, and appear alongside the same glossy placards and crisp, bright flags. But the hyper-professionalized campaign obscures the fact that 99.9 percent of politics takes place not on national stages but in ward offices, state assemblies, and community school board meetings where there are many political ideologies, strange conspiracy theories, and eccentric obsessions as there are voters. Democracy is the ultimate amateur's game, and its messy strangeness is what makes the rough and tumble of self governance so endlessly fascinating, enlightening and, yes, entertaining. And this is why, now as the campaign reaches its spring doldrums you might want to turn to Windy City, an entertaining fictional chronicle of murder and political intrigue in Chicago written by NPR host and journalist Scott Simon. While the book is perhaps a bit too cartoonish, it certainly isn't drab.
The book opens with the tragic death of the city's beloved black mayor: a larger-than-life, loquacious, polysyllabic, and gluttonous bachelor, clearly modeled on the late Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor. In Simon's alternate world, the mayor drops dead while feasting on his nightly pie of Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. Police quickly ascertain that the midnight repast was poisoned and the mayor a victim of foul play, not merely his capacious appetite. Sundaran Roopini, a middle-aged Indian immigrant, restaurateur, widower, and alderman from the city's North Side, finds himself roused at 3 a.m. and summoned to City Hall, where he is told the news and sworn in as the city's interim mayor. The novel follows Roopini over the next three days as he negotiates a pitched battle among several aldermen to succeed the mayor, an assassination investigation, and the memorialization of a beloved leader. Roopini, nicknamed Sunny and mistaken for an Italian because of the vowel that ends his surname, is a winning character: sharp, liberal, but decidedly non-idealistic. "A campaign promise is like shouting out 'I love you' during orgasm," he says. "You mean it. You mean it absolutely in that moment. But any adult should know that you might not be able to mean it next week." But for all his wit, Roopini is a tragic figure. The father of two teenage daughters, he continues to mourn the murder of his beloved wife, shot dead a year earlier in a senseless stick-up at a money exchange across the street from the Indian restaurant he runs. So palpable is his grief that those around him "assign each bulge and wrinkle" on his once-boyish, now weathered face "to his tragedy."
In following Roopini from Lithuanian beer house to West Side black church to Chinese banquet hall, Simon ably conjures the polyglot patchwork quilt of ethnic Chicago with its balkanized neighborhoods, local pride, and warring factions. (Simon's particularly adept at depicting the Windy City through its food. Somehow the gustatory always prompts his best writing, like his description of a Loop buffet where they "carved corn beef thin enough to read baseball scores through the slice.") He also gives a fairly accurate picture of something rarely delivered in either fiction or film -- the day-to-day mechanics of the life of a non–prime time politician. At a community zoning meeting in his ward, the sleep-deprived Sunny (now interim mayor for a few days but unable to extricate himself from attending the meeting) fights to keep his eyes open as the room spirals toward chaos:
"Look how developers leveled lower Manhattan!"
"Developers!" gasped Floyd Porteus, who ran a stationery shop and newsstand on Sheridan Road. "That was terrorism!"
"By the U.S. government!" shouted several people from their seats..."The FBI and Enron wanted to suck the American people into war. Just like Pearl Harbor!"
"You don't know that Roosevelt planned Pearl Harbor?...Then you're nuts."
Having covered zoning meetings in the real-life 48th Ward, I can say with confidence this is only slightly exaggerated.
Add to meetings like this the wedding banquets and fundraisers, the vote counting and forced bonhomie between colleagues and the general truck-and-barter of favors and influence and jobs, and you begin to understand why politicians are always so eager to move up the ladder. "You're a gifted politician," the local U.S. attorney says to Sunny at one point. "I wonder why you've spent all this time in the minor leagues." After 20 years in politics, Roopini is contemplating getting out of the minor leagues -- either by retiring from politics and opening a new, more upscale restaurant or running for Congress. But we get the sense that for all his arm's-length irony (and self-loathing in the wake of his wife's death), Sunny actually likes the unapologetic weirdness and rough edges of salt-of-the-earth ordinary working people that politicians like himself spend most of their time with. Explaining why he loves election night he says, "There's something majestic about it. For a few hours, everything that self-important people hope is in the hands of a lot of people who fill coffee mugs."
But while Chicago's political and culinary delights come across in all their charm and unpretension, the book can also be treacly and grating. In his earnest attempt to conjure the colorful world of Chicago politics, Simon often slips into caricature: a militant black alderman from the South Side brandishes a gun on the council floor to demonstrate the insufficient security, a grizzled Greek alderman is discovered having an affair with both (!) the male cops on his security detail. The dialogue, of which there is quite a bit, is often mannered and over-thought. And when he's not showing off his wit through his characters, Simon's often heading straight through tenderness into sentimentality. At a wedding banquet for his niece, Alderman John Wu says, "Here, sometimes you got to scream to be heard. But you get to scream, loud as you like. I think we have the best of both here -- Chinese people and American freedom. This city gets cold. But it's great." Roopini follows up just a few pages later with his own toast to the young couple, in which he invokes the "brave giddiness in suddenly realizing that two people who began on opposite sides of the world can come to this great, vast, churning place and find that in all of the important ways, they are from the same family tree."
The problem isn't that these sentiments aren't true; it's that they're so baldly and repeatedly stated by the characters throughout the book. More problematically, they also push out the cruelty, pettiness, and real ugliness that politics can often engender. Every conflict is a bit too good-natured. One recalls the real-life Harold Washington, who was opposed by a bloc of white aldermen with such unwavering viciousness that his years in office came to be known as Council Wars.
But I'm willing to forgive nearly all of these flaws, if for no other reason than Simon's evident affection for Chicago comes through so thoroughly. And I will pay him this compliment: reading the book made me long to be back in the City of Big Shoulders, braving the cold in a bar, drinking an Old Style or eating Polish sausage and some deep-dish pizza while talking about the Bears and whichever local pol had the misfortune of having just been indicted.