Diversey by Kantor coverNew edition published by Fifth Star Press

Review by Kevin Riordan

 

Whether or not the past is past, we have a chance to visit it in this new edition of the unearthed first novel by Mr. Kantor, who won a Pulitzer for Andersonville and became something of a household name in the more recent past, and is responsible for the story in both The Best Years of Our Lives and Gun Crazy. He sharpened his tools on this tale of idealism and corruption, by far the most evocative obscure novel set in Chicago that I have read. I have waded through the mysteries of Craig Rice, Jonathan Latimer and Howard Browne (John Evans), enjoyed the stories of Fredric Brown (The Fabulous Clipjoint) and even circumnavigated the literary mass of Willard Motley’s We Fished All Night, all looking for lost Chicago. It was spelled-out in Diversey all along.

Out of print for over 50 years and more in the mold of Gatsby than Paul Pine, Private Eye, it has enough action and insight to satisfy fans of either. Newly arrived small town newspaperman Marry Javlyn is a poet as well as a scribe, and his language benefits from both disciplines, while the other characters like sweet Jo Ruska often slur out a dialect that is somewhere between Mark Twain’s waifs and Hellcab. So far as this goes, it could be autobiographical. There is a contemporary sensibility to the ukulele playing switchboard operator Jo and to Javlyn, whose poetry is far-fetched but admired and who easily falls into the quietly corrupt life of a Cook County payroll hack, the job a reward from the red hot bootlegger he takes a beating for. The scene in which he is knocked out is as jolting and hysterical as a Thurber cartoon.

All this action and more spring from his installation in a rooming house, the Hamilton, in a Northside neighborhood that structurally still holds much of the same character as it did in 1928, more-so than any of the other locales faithfully rendered in the book, which include the shuttered Uptown Theatre, an artists’ studio building in “Tower Town” near the Water Tower, now hopelessly upscale,  and a bustling department store.

I am the kind of fanatic who prefers Call Northside 777 to Citizen Kane, and treasures those few seconds viewed through a cab’s rear window in Nightmare Alley, because of 3 words: location, location, location. Kantor’s Chicago is as vivid as a personal memory and not just in geographic detail. The triangles of relationships that Javlyn intersects with lead the reader into the heart of the criminalized daily life of Prohibition, from roadhouses and matinees to swank hotels. If the bootlegger doesn’t come through, there is no joy in Mudville. The quality of the paint they drink varies as much as the fortunes of these struggling souls, not one of whom is off the rack. Each person is an original, one more reason to read this and close some of that distance with the past.