Judge a book by its cover: Why I loved Brian Doyle’s “Chicago”

"Chicago" by Brian Doyle

Have you heard the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” Of course you have.

But I do it all the time.

Several weeks ago, during a visit to the northwest Oklahoma City Metropolitan Library, I went on a search for my next two books to read. The first one I selected was picked precisely because I loved its cover. It was a 2016 novel called “Chicago,” written by a Portland, Oregon, author named Brian Doyle.

Turns out that Doyle died in 2017.

And it turned out that I deeply loved this book, proving if only for a day that it’s OK to judge a book by its cover. When I say that I deeply loved the book, I mean that it made me extraordinarily sad to learn that Doyle had died from brain cancer just a year before. I had hoped to maybe one day meet him at a bookstore somewhere and get him to sign it.

Not the copy I checked out from the library. No, I bought a copy about 100 pages into it.

I’m not a literary critic, neither in terms of my ability to write proper criticism nor in terms of my breadth of reading experience. I don’t have nearly the reading reps with which to compare “Chicago” to Driesser’s “Sister Carrie,” as this writer did.

But I can tell you why I loved the book, which best I can tell is essentially a memoir for Doyle, who was at one time both a working journalist and a Chicagolander. I loved it because he carried a go-bag and a basketball in his car, two of the items I regularly have. When you can see yourself in a main character, it’s hard not to connect.

The unnamed main character worked as a journalist for a Catholic magazine.

He loved baseball, and the ups and downs of the 1978 Chicago White Sox were practically a character in the story. Heck, my Texas Rangers were mentioned a couple of times.

Doyle also loved Abraham Lincoln, which was detailed through the eyes of a talking dog, Edward. It took me about 30 pages to figure out that this character, one of many residents in an apartment building, was a dog. And he talked. And it was no big deal. I even fancied him a bit like Brian from “Family Guy,” except that this dog was a stamp collector and obsessed with the speeches and writings of our greatest president.

Growing up, I was obsessed with the American presidency in general, having read biographies of all of them. Reading “Chicago” makes me want to honor Edward by at least starting to build my Lincoln repertoire.

I noted the narrator as the main character of the book, but really it was the city of Chicago itself and the apartment building where he lived. It’s characters like Miss Elminides and Mr. Pawlowsky and Ms. Manfredi, and her empanadas, were well drawn, interesting and nice. Genuinely nice. Perhaps it tugged at me a little because I know that Mom would have loved this book. During her later years, we often read the same books to have a little something extra to talk about. In this case, it was the goodness of the people in the story, their sheer decency, that I think would have appealed to her most.

Doyle’s writing reminded me a little of Faulkner in that he loves a good run-on, but unlike the Mississippi master in that he’s easy to read. Faulkner is work.

For anybody who’s randomly picked up a book at the library only to end up loving it, you know how I feel, except that in this case I didn’t merely like “Chicago.” I loved it, and there is a very good chance I read a bunch more from Brian Doyle, who by all accounts seemed like a great dude himself.

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