Bill Donlon & Dennis Foley

We Speak Chicagoese


Book Review by Clayton Crook

If someone had never been to Chicago before, what would they think of the city? The experience of a tourist is vastly different than the experience of a resident. If I hadn’t been to Chicago, it would be hard for me to imagine what it would be like to live there. We Speak Chicagoese, published by Side Street Press in 2016,delivers Chicago from a different perspective. It offers anecdotes about the city that many of us may have never experienced, or, if we’ve lived here, we may know all too well. As Bill Donlon and Dennis Foley – the book’s editors – state in the introduction, the book is not an anthology of Chicago authors, but it is more of a sampling that “gives the Chicago voice its due.” The authors speak “Chicagoese.” 

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is its diversity. The collection would have to be categorized as multi-genre because of the many different stories contained within the book, their subject matter, and the different tones in which the stories are told. Most of the work aren’t about the city itself, but rather they are set in Chicago, or allude to the city. Not only did I enjoy the spontaneity of the stories, essays, and poems of the book being put together in a purposeful format, but I also enjoyed how different each piece was from another. The organization doesn’t take away from the piece either, I think it actually serves the overall structure better, because it allows the reader to keep themes in mind as they read the stories, essays, and poems. 

Included are character portraits, and others are coming-of-age pieces. Some are metaphorical, and strongly so. Either way, for the fictional stories and prose poems, the characters were relatable and compelling. Some pieces, whether fiction, nonfiction, or essay-form, have a narrative distance from the characters or authors looking back on their lives. There are prose poems, poems with multiple parts to them, long poems, and short poems. The occasional picture also acted as a sort of subjective art piece. Some of the pictures seem metaphorical, like the barbed wire after Gary Johnson’s “Marquette Park, 1976,” or the Hispanic mural before Thomas Sanfilip’s “Imperium.”

If I had the job of categorizing this work, I would consider it a thematic collection, because of the themes that span the stories and poems. Some themes that recur throughout the book are race, ethnicity, and culture. Some of the stories related to race and ethnicity are compelling character portraits, such as Eric May’s story, “A Secret’s Life, Mrs. Motley of Parkland, Chicago,” which tells the story of a African American woman who has lived her entire life in the same neighborhood. John Guzlowski’s “Looking for Work in America” is a prose poem that serves as a character portrait, describing a father’s experience finding work in America, but it also tells of the effects of war, in only three parts and three pages.

The book is teeming with poetry by Black writers and poems that allude to power struggles. There are also stories that either directly involve a racial or ethnic struggle, or are filled with cultural references. Gary Johnson, in his story, “Marquette Park, 1976,” shows a Chicago plagued with racial tension – Black people march on the streets while Neo-Nazis incite violence. John Guzlowski, in his short prose poem, “Looking for Work in America,” tells about his father’s immigration from Germany to Chicago, and in his poem, “Chicago,” touches further on his German heritage. Thomas Sanfilip has a story in which the conflict isn’t directly related to race or ethnicity, but it is a major theme within his story, “Imperium,” in which a Puerto Rican woman struggles getting by as a sex worker while trying to support her children. However, in the nonfiction piece, “How a Muslim Feels about 9/11,” her looking back, and forward, is painful rather than nostalgic.

We Speak Chicagoese shows another kind of Chicago that we don’t see on the news. I really enjoyed the familiarity of it after having lived in the city for the past few years. I especially enjoyed how I was able to read about taquerias, different neighborhoods of the city, and the city before there were lots of high-rise apartment buildings, and a part of rural Illinois outside of Chicago. Many of these stories are told with nostalgic voices. In Joe Meno’s story, “Absolute Beginners,” I strongly related to the story about two students living in a ramshackle apartment in the suburbs. Patty McNair’s “Back to the Water’s Edge” features a group of high school girls who make an adventure to the city from the suburbs to meet some boys at the beach. I particularly enjoyed the over-arching sense of seventies nostalgia that I’ll never know. In Sherwood Anderson’s “Brothers,” we find a man living twenty miles outside of Chicago in rural Illinois, questioning a Chicago murder case and an odd neighbor.

Another theme of the book that is worth mentioning is that of poverty and financial struggle. Cris Mazza and Frank Norris, like Patricia McNair, have stories involving characters who come to Chicago from other parts of the country. In Cris Mazza’s story, “They’ll Shoot You,” a woman struggles to make ends meet with her job in Cincinnati, while owning an apartment there and in Chicago, and runs into trouble with some locals. In Frank Norris’s story, “A Deal in Wheat,” he expresses the darker side of the wheat farming business through the eyes of Sam Lewiston, a wheat farmer in southwestern Kansas. 

While looking back is a common narrative tool used in this book, one of the things that some of the authors look back on is war, particularly the Vietnam War and World War II. Carl Richards and John Guzlowski are two poets who touch on topics surrounding World War II. John Guzlowski writes about it through his father’s recollection in his prose poem, “Looking for Work in America,” and Carl Richard’s prose poem, “Hitler’s Moustache,”is about Hitler. In Tony Serritella’s nonfiction piece, “Coming Home,” a different kind of Chicago is shown, through the portrait of a family. Victory gardens and stars in windows give life to a Chicago that Serritella’s nostalgic voice tells so expressively. Dominic A. Pacyga’s short piece is written through the perspective of a Vietnam veteran, and is written in second person, in which the reader is “Paco.” I enjoyed this piece because the whole story takes place in a room where the reader is drinking with the narrator, but the narrator is telling war stories, and stories about his friends he knew in Chicago who did and didn’t go to Vietnam. In Ben Reitman’s essay, “Conscription,” he expresses his disgust with America during the Vietnam era, and talks about other countries’ conscription laws compared to America’s at the time.

Not only is We Speak Chicagoese a diverse book, but it has diverse writers, from many different places and times. Some of the writers are very well-acclaimed, and others are not as well known. It’s a book with many different kinds of people, places, sensations, and memories, and most of all, it’s accessible enough for anyone to read. I believe that Dennis Foley and Bill Donlon succeeded in putting together a short anthology of voices that speak “Chicagoese.” 


Publisher Info: 978-0-692-65885-7
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Clayton Crook is from Belleville, Illinois and lives in Chicago. They like to spend their time running, meditating, and trying not to spend too much time on the internet when they aren’t working or writing. They most recently had a couple of author interviews published in Columbia College Chicago’s The Lab Review blog.