Remembering Gage Park (a review)

Remembering Gage Park by William P. Shunas; self-published through Xlibris; copyright 2010. Available at Barnes & Noble (www.bn.com), Amazon.com, and at http://www.Xlibris.com/Bookstore. 

Paperback $15.00-20.00. Kindle edition $7.69

             A fictional memoir, Remembering Gage Park  begins: “I was eight years old when I met   Connor. That was they day he nearly put out my eye. You would’ve thought I’d have learned something that day, but not me.” That hook imbedded, Shunas pauses to describe Chicago’s then-unpaved alleys, Gage Park’s turf protocols for eight-year-olds, and the workings of the Chicago Democratic Machine, before returning to his narrator’s fateful meeting with Connor. Intriguing stuff, and for the rest of the book Shunas continues to intersperse tense scenes with sharply-etched description of Gage Park: the streets, homes, gardens, stores, vacant lots, the people and their culture, the politics and economics. He tells all this through Mike Staron, a semi-tough Gage Park kid who grew up, got through college and did okay. Looking back now, Mike wastes few words and evinces an eye for detail and a hard-edged poetry to his voice. For some of us, our childhood neighborhood has a homely kind of magic, and Mike Staron’s description of his grade-school years beautifully nails that feeling. It’s similar to what Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine did for Waukegan, minus the sugar coating. 

            I have a few quibbles with the book. Transitions for instance: Shunas indicates changes of scene within a chapter by skipping an extra line between paragraphs. Sometimes this works well, but other times a transitional phrase or sentence would’ve avoided a few seconds of reader disorientation. Mentioning the year in which a chapter or scene is happening more often would’ve also been helpful, especially in a book spanning over three decades.  Finally, a relationship ends in the book with significant consequences, and we’re never told why the relationship, which seemed to be going well, ended. Such issues notwithstanding, my interest in the book never flagged. I found Remembering Gage Park hard to put down, in fact.

            The book centers on the friendship between its narrator, Mike Staron, and Jim Conner—simply “Conner” to Mike. Though both were Catholic, Mike went to public schools and Jim to Catholic, and their contact before High School had been limited to sidewalk confrontations and occasional fights. They meet on the Gage Park freshman-sophomore basketball team, and their love of the game brings them together. Mike is a regular guy–no wimp, no bully, a little awkward socially sometimes, but able to hold his own. Conner, on the other hand, is a blithe spirit who seems to swagger through childhood and adolescence unscathed.

            They become best friends, and the fictional memoir follows them from the late Fifties through the Eighties. They discover girls, beer, and nearby neighborhoods. They encounter in one form or another, racial tension, block-busting, The Cold War, Chicago politics, the civil rights movement, The Viet Nam War, and three political assassinations. The focus, however, is always on the people of Gage Park. Whenever the larger issues come into play, it’s within a context of everyday people trying to get through daily life in the neighborhood. For instance, sixteen-year-old Mike’s trip to the beach with a hot neighborhood girl gets juxtaposed with the image of the Nike missile guarded by soldiers in the park next to the 57th Street Beach. A discussion of the Cold War from the perspective of a Fifties teenager ensues—and I laughed out loud.  

             I suppose some could question whether the world needs another coming-of-age-in-The-Sixties book, but the world can always use another excellent work. And this is one. Shunas’s description of Martin Luther King’s march on Marquette Park is itself worth the price of the book. For that matter, so is the evocation of Gage Park in the Fifties through the eyes of an eight-year-old, and so is the account of Mike and Connor’s relationship after Conner returns damaged from Vietnam. There is so much to admire here: Remembering Gage Park views the big picture, but from the streets of a struggling working class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Shunas has a clear-eyed sympathy for his flawed characters. Further, he depicts painful scenes—many–and even at their most wrenching, refrains from sentimentality. His tone is neither saccharine nor unremittingly bleak. Threads of family loyalty and of friendship run through the book. Shunas follows his characters as they continue to develop into their forties. I like all that—a lot.  Remembering Gage Park views three turbulent decades in the U.S. from an urban, blue-collar neighborhood. I’m not sure that anyone has told the story of those years in a way that pleases me more.

This review originally appeared in www.windycityreviews.org.

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About kentmcdanielwrites

Writer and musician.

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