Heard the One About the Hole That Swallowed Part of Chicago?
MOUNT CHICAGO, by Adam Levin
Adam Levin’s expansive new novel begins with a high-concept catastrophe. One day in November 2021, a crater opens up in Chicago and swallows a swath of Michigan Avenue, along with many thousands of people. It’s a timely setup in this age of disasters beyond parody, and Levin homes in hilariously on the lame official response. The mayor and his P.R. people call the inexplicable disaster a “terrestrial anomaly,” since the euphemism seismic event has “earthquakian overtones” and the term sinkhole is too reminiscent of Florida: Sinkholes “made you think of swamps and they made you think of armpits. Swampy armpits. Meth, opossums, thrush. … People in mourning did not need that.”
Among the mourners is one Solomon Gladman, a sad-sack creative writing professor, prizewinning novelist and underground stand-up comedian. Gladman’s entire family — his wife, parents, sisters, nieces and nephew — perishes in the anomaly, leaving him in a daze of agoraphobic grief, blurred out on Xanax and whiskey. He considers suicide, but can’t bring himself to abandon his pet parrot, which is so attached to Gladman that it begins to self-mutilate when Gladman isn’t around. So Gladman resigns himself to staying alive until the parrot has lived out its life.
Meanwhile, young Apter Schutz has become the mayor’s right-hand man. Apter is a kind of avatar of meritocracy. Though he’s only in his 20s, a long, rambling portion of “Mount Chicago” is devoted to his many ventures and successes. In college, while trying to raise money for the Bernie Sanders campaign, Apter comes up with a scheme to sell patriotic page-a-day calendars that appeal to MAGA zealots and white nationalists; the products are so wildly successful that he becomes a millionaire before the age of 22. After selling the calendar business for a tidy profit, he earns another $5 million in cryptocurrency speculation, invests with his sister in a small press and becomes a successful psychotherapist. In short, Apter has a much more productive third decade than most of us, and this is even before he signs on with the mayor’s office.
At last, in the wake of the terrestrial anomaly, Apter’s skills are put to the test as he helps the mayor raise funds for a memorial park for the victims, and he is sent to meet with the Lollapalooza co-owners Ari Emanuel and Perry Farrell, in hopes of setting up a benefit concert. Apter convinces Emanuel and Farrell that one of the headliners should be none other than the comedian Solomon Gladman — whom Apter has admired and been influenced by since he was in middle school. But now Apter must persuade the reclusive Gladman to sign on.
“Mount Chicago” is one of those sweeping, polyphonic, absurdist epic novels like they used to make — think, for example, of “A Confederacy of Dunces” or “The Bonfire of the Vanities” — though to me Levin most closely resembles his fellow Chicagoan Stanley Elkin. Like Elkin, he has a boisterous yet mournful sensibility, nihilism backed with vaudeville shtick; like Elkin, he has a gift for the riff and the digression, the labyrinthine shaggy-dog joke that roves and ranges until you’ve almost forgotten the setup.
Unlike Elkin, Levin doesn’t always know when enough is enough. There is a strong “Infinite Jest”energy here, which, while often brilliant, can verge on a “Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson doing cocaine together” sort of vibe. There is a joke, told by Gladman, that goes on for 13 pages; a metafictional chapter in which the author wonders whether readers will picture his face when they read about Gladman or Apter; a section about bartenders who can choose your perfect drink just by looking at you; long asides about the dated television show “Entourage”and the actor Matt Dillon; and an extended gag about David Mamet’s opinion on Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”There’s no doubt that Levin’s a gifted wit and a master of repartee, but even with the finest comedians, at a certain point the orchestra starts playing and someone backstage is looking for the curtain hook.
Despite its occasionally exasperating self-indulgence, “Mount Chicago” has passages of real charm and brilliance. My favorite sections are the chapters from the point of view of Gladman’s parrot, Gogol, which manages a very convincing, sublimely comic and heartbreaking evocation of a bird’s perspective. I loved the chapters on the mayor, a George Saunders-like creation who wants the memorial to be “our less depressing Auschwitz,” and who imagines being praised by Barack Obama: “What an amazing leap of genius your mind had to take to even come up with the conceptual framework of the park at all, but this wall? Nonparallel! … If I may use your own words to describe to you what this survivor’s wall means to me, I would describe it as this: It crosses my wonderline.”
In the closing sections, when Apter and Gladman finally meet, the author achieves a sustained, operatic balance of comedy, grief and despair that is worth the wait. It’s a genuinely breathtaking achievement and brought tears to my eyes. Those last hundred pages showed me the kind of novel this talented author is truly capable of.
Dan Chaon is the author of seven works of fiction, including, most recently, the novel “Sleepwalk.”
MOUNT CHICAGO, by Adam Levin | 592 pp. | Doubleday | $30