Sunday, May 31, 2009

Radio Review

Steve Amick's novel, Nothing But a Smile, is unusual in subject, tone, and perspective. I had great fun reviewing it concisely for Booklist, and then at length for Chicago Public Radio, where music enhances the ambiance. Take a listen:

And if you would like to read along:

Nothing But a Smile, a novel by Steve Amick (Pantheon Books). Review for Eight-Forty-Eight by Donna Seaman. Air date: May 20, 2009.

During hard times when jobs are scarce, the more creative and intrepid among us draw on their entrepreneurial instinct and willingness to gamble, and put to use what they’ve been given, be it brains or beauty. Or both if you’re Sal Chesterton, the guiding light in Steve Amick’s naughty-but-nice novel Nothing But a Smile. Nothing But a Smile is a tale of good-old American ingenuity and self-reliance, and a spicy and sly novel about sex, hypocrisy, extortion, censorship, and sleaze. Nothing But a Smile is nothing if not fun and tantalizing.

It’s 1944 and Wink Dutton, an artist who got lucky and landed a spot as an illustrator for Stars and Stripes while serving in the Pacific, badly mangles his drawing hand in an absurd and demoralizing accident. He doesn’t know what sort of work he can do now that he can’t hold a pencil or pen, but at least he can fulfill his promise to his photographer buddy, Bill Chesterton, and look up his wife Sal when he gets to Chicago. She’s been managing their family camera shop all by herself. A shop in the Loop that Chicagoans may well picture as Central Photo on Wabash Avenue between Adams and Jackson––the city’s oldest camera shop, and a Chicago landmark with its classic old sign facing the shadow-casting el tracks.

Sal is happy to meet Wink, maybe a little too happy, but she doesn’t let on that she is struggling to keep the shop in business. Folks are broke and not inclined to spend their few precious dollars on cameras or film, and her bills are piling up. Plucky and resourceful, she’s been moonlighting at the Chicago Tribune as a darkroom technician. Hoping to earn more money and make better use of her skills, she asks an editor about working as a photographer. He tells her, “We’re not quite there, yet,” and suggests a secretarial job instead. Infuriated by such blatant sexism, Sal decides to capitalize on her know-how and good looks and sets to work shooting her first roll of girlie pictures, using herself as the model. She also decides to rent Wink the empty apartment above the shop, across from her own. Why not? She can use some help, and, given the spate of break-ins in the neighborhood, some protection. Wink doesn’t have to know about her little sideline.

But of course he finds out. And while Wink’s hand is damaged, his artist’s eye couldn’t be keener, and soon he’s behind the camera while Sal and her friend Reenie, a living, breathing pinup with a cheerfully risqué imagination, vamp it up, “exposing parts of themselves in ridiculous predicaments,” as Sal puts it. After some experimentation, the three hit the jackpot with their cleverly staged, cute-pie sexy photos, described in, let us say, lingering, if not loving detail. Clearly, Steve Amick conducted exhaustive research into classic 1940s pinups, suffering mightily in pursuit of historic accuracy. And if their peek-a-boo slapstick seems familiar, it’s because Amick is paying homage to a real-life Chicago-based illustrator renowned for his antic portraits of leggy, disarrayed beauties, Glen Elvgren, called the “Norman Rockwell of cheesecake.” Elvgren appears in Nothing But a Smile (does the title make more sense now?) as does a “hatchet-faced young guy named Hef,” a nod to another bit of Chicago skin-trade history as the home of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy.

If it sounds like Amick makes girlie pictures seem wholesome and harmless, rest assured the novel does not fail to address the darker side of the industry. Sal, Reenie, and Wink are threatened by mobsters, insulted by outraged neighbors and family, and arrested during a shoot on a North Side beach. The trio also contends with a shocking tragedy, a military cover-up, and trouble with the feds at the onset of the McCarthy-era Red Scare. When the Tribune publishes one of Wink’s serious photographs, a powerful portrait of a wounded G.I. reading the want ads, he’s tagged as a communist.

Steve Amick’s novel, Nothing But A Smile, is an unusual mix of literary and pulp fiction, a bawdy romp and a true romance. A wily work satire that asks, What is actually obscene? Nudity or war? Sex or sexism? Titillation or poverty? Amick’s artful and affecting novel of pinups and put-downs is a zesty inquiry into fairness and decency, free speech and justice, and the value of work and creativity. Nothing But a Smile is fresh, witty, immensely entertaining, and provocative in every sense of the word.

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