After three years of organizing and hosting the biweekly Bookslut reading series in Chicago, one night sticks out as particularly memorable. The series made its home in the cozy Hopleaf bar in Andersonville, a nice (but quickly becoming too nice) neighborhood on the north side. I myself used to live around the corner from the Hopleaf, but I was priced out after about a year. The audience was generally nice young men and women in their 20s and 30s who had respectable jobs that allowed them to buy a $6 beer served in a specially crafted stein while enjoying a night of literature. Myself included.
The readers that night were Shalom Auslander and my friend Martin Preib. Martin is a wonderful, gritty essayist, and we had been drinking buddies for about a year. He was also a Chicago cop. I don’t believe in the event listing he was described as such. But as the pre-event chatter continued, a nice friendly vibe settling in the room, three of Martin’s friends walked in the door. In full uniform. Guns on their hips. The room went dead silent.
Even as it became obvious they were here for the event, not to take anyone down, the discomfort in the room remained palpable. Worlds collided. You could see the panicked mathematics in the brains of the attendees, as they added up a lifetime of transgressions. The atmosphere didn’t bounce back until the event was over and the cops left with Martin.
Now that Martin’s first book of essays about life and death on the streets of Chicago, “The Wagon and Other Stories from the City,” has been released, that same tension keeps showing up in reviews of the book. Jonathan Yardley wrote in his laudatory Washington Post review, “Preib’s is a voice that has almost never been heard in American writing: not merely the voice of an ordinary policeman, which is rare enough, but the voice of someone whose working life has been spent in the service industry.” Other reviewers can’t stop mentioning how remarkable it is to have a book written by a cop. While Chicago has a long, treasured history of writing from the workers, from Upton Sinclair to Nelson Algren, the current literary model with its MFA industry, the publishing center located in Manhattan, the publicity for the bright young hot things, can leave anyone not fitting that mold feeling like an outsider.
I asked Preib about the reviews of “The Wagon,” and he e-mailed me, “I was just as concerned about the reaction of my co-workers to my stories than anyone in publishing, because I respect their opinion and their tastes. Cops do not get this respect from any of the professional classes, though they earn it every day, so it’s hardly surprising there wouldn’t be a lot of cop writers on the shelves. Much of what a cop deals with is not politically correct and this makes the professional classes very, very nervous.”
During our nights of sitting over glasses of whiskey together, our conversation often turned to the insularity of the writing world, and how unsatisfying much of the literature written by MFA graduates or MFA instructors is. I asked him if he still liked writers who come from a work background, rather than the graduate schools, he responded, “I don’t really want to tell other writers what to do and how to live or what to write. I just feel personally that we are very stratified, not knowing what the other side is up to. This is a big problem for a lot of writers. Even Melville struggled because he was writing about a world most of his readers had no experience with. I see it in a lot of writing. Many writers used to come up through journalism. Today it seems as if writers’ workshops are the main process. I regret that. I prefer writers who have gone out into the world, wrestled with it and learned a little about it. Labor forces you to do that, so yes, I think it’s good for writers to have a day job.”
And he believes his day job has helped him as a writer, even if it cuts into his already limited writing time. Chicago is a difficult city to dig into and to make sense of, but a life in the service industry from doorman to city cop — put him in a unique place to understand how Chicago works — if it could be said to work at all. As Preib writes in the book’s first essay, Chicago’s “ambivalence to truth and fact is well known.” He e-mails, “Cops are natural storytellers, some of the best I have ever met. They are also quite astute in understanding the city, particularly politics. Many are also excellent readers.” It’s not that cops don’t have stories to tell, or the ability to tell them, it’s more of a bad fit between cops and publishers. “Most professionals people treat cops like they are jaded, a sign of the arrogance of their class, including publishing. This feeling has intensified since I published the book. People think because they have a college degree and a professional job, they know a lot. Well, they don’t.”
But then there’s always something that will make you feel alienated, whether you’re a cop, a writer, or one of Chicago’s famously corrupt politicians. “I’ve always felt like an oddity for all kinds of reasons… I just like to get up every morning and work on something that seems compelling and try to become a better writer. That’s all I do.”