Violence, even well intentioned, always rebounds upon oneself. Lao Tzu
Suddenly, to everyone’s horror, the tomb of his grandfather opens and a hand grabs Don Carlo’s shoulder, pulling him back into the tomb. – Verdi’s Don Carlo
As I was reading Chicago Stories: West of Western I was brought to mind of a modern day opera, a tragedy, lived across the streets of the west side of Chicago. Blood and war, incest, murder, hatred, fear – all the themes are there, richly portrayed. The brutality of poverty reaches out and grips the reader by the throat, and yet, the layers of the story are not just those of poverty and gangs. They are so much deeper. As Richard, one of the characters in the book puts it, “Someone recently called this kind of wanton destruction a failure of imagination.” And, as Graham Greene said in “The Power and the Glory,” Hatred is a failure of imagination.
There is no failure of imagination in Hamer’s writing. Rather, she writes brilliantly about a neighborhood, and the people within it. What she writes about, however, is the deep and abiding failure of imagination of the gangs that roam the streets of the neighborhood, sowing devastation in their wake. These people live in small worlds, with no comprehension of what a wide world there truly is out there – what there actually is which may be accomplished, should one simply reach out, stretch the imagination beyond a few small blocks. Purposeful ignorance, and the temptations of power, if only in small and violent ways, taking the lives of those who both do, and do not, deserve to die.
Seraphy has moved into this neighborhood, on the border of two gang territories, purchasing a beautiful but run down building to live and work in as an architect. She fixes up the building and moves in, only to be faced with murders, gang warfare, and threats all around her. But there are also good people – her neighbors around the corner are two wonderful gay male characters I immediately fell in love with, as does she. There are artists and singers, legal and illegal immigrants, the wonderful fellow who owns the corner market, and the crazy nun next door. And there are the gangs, those dredges of humanity so soulless and evil that they would feed upon their own people, like jackals upon a corpse.
This book was vibrant and violent, deeply moving and deeply disturbing on many levels. The stories it has to tell are a microcosm of America, where we have been, where we are going, and how it can all go so very, very wrong. It is mystery and suspense, thriller and literary novel, pain and redemption and absolutely riveting.