By Blake Baxter (@bbax2)
This past spring, I had the opportunity to meet a notable fiction writer. John McNally was visiting Eureka College to speak at the college’s second annual literary conference and I had –- not coincidentally — recently read his first book of short stories, Troublemakers, for my fiction class. I waited until he was almost done signing books before I approached him. I was more concerned with asking questions about his writing and writing in general than I was in getting an autograph. How often do you personally get the chance to ask the author what motivated them to write about a particular subject, or why they decided to tell a specific story? Those were the kind of things that were on my mind that evening.
Over the next forty minutes or so, McNally graciously answered all of my questions, told a handful of humorous stories, and to my surprise, took an interest in me, offering me advice on writing and how to break into the industry. The pleasant exchange prompted me to buy a book from him the next day. I was tempted to get one of his novels, since I had previously only read his short fiction, but I ultimately picked up Ghosts of Chicago because I own many more novels than short story collections. It was a choice I definitely do not regret.
McNally’s previous book of short stories, Troublemakers, is relatively self-explanatory; it is made up of stories featuring usually sympathetic protagonists that for one reason or another find themselves in some sort of trouble. Be it due to intrinsic flaws, bad influences or the structure of society, these characters seem doomed. But it isn’t always as depressing as it sounds. Although many of the stories are sad, nearly all are lively, humorous, adventurous and thought-provoking.
Ghosts of Chicago is comprised of seventeen short stories that all take place within a fictionalized version of the neighborhoods and suburbs of Chicago. A decent chunk of the stories feature Chicago icons and public figures like Walter Payton, Gene Siskel, John Belushi and Richard J. Daley. McNally retells famous incidents from the point of view of the famous and outsiders alike, and puts his own spin on lesser known anecdotes and legends. The rest of the stories are about common people — a boy, a realtor, a memoirist, a salesman –- whose worlds are consciously or unconsciously shaped by the culture of the city and the state.
However, the protagonists aren’t just linked by their geographical roots, but also by their predicaments. Much like the protagonists of Troublemakers, those in Ghosts of Chicago are tortured or cursed by something ostensibly irreversible. But, whereas Troublemakers shows all of the different agents of trouble, Ghosts of Chicago presents a motley crew of characters whose troubles stem from an inability to let go of the past. Though, try as they might to function in the present, their progress is often arrested by ghosts and demons from long ago. The kicker, though, is that whenever you least expect it, McNally shows that, as painful as it can be, holding onto the past can be valuable, too – sometimes even beautiful.
This is a collection of stories that any Chicagoan will find enticing, but downstate residents will also appreciate references to a little less prominent Illinois cities like Carbondale and Rantoul. Beyond that, I would recommend this incredibly well written book to anyone interested in emotional, twisted and spellbinding fiction. Like my conversation with the author, Ghosts of Chicago is engaging and funny. But, appropriately, it is also something that our conversation was not: haunting.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.