Alex Kotlowitz’s “An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago” is a tough book to keep reading, an uncomfortable and relentless close-up, chapter after chapter documenting the social havoc and personal suffering leading to teens and children being murdered or committing murder, almost all by gunshot, through three summer months of 2013.
“By Chicago standards it was a tamer season than most,” he writes.
Kotlowitz (bestselling author of “There Are No Children Here”) is a brilliant reporter who covers one of America’s most heartbreaking beats. Readers know this author walks the walk. If his new book is disconcerting to read, it’s also hard to look away from. Kotlowitz’s accounts of love, friendship, parenting, rivalry, humiliation and the pressure to maintain respect are fascinatingly real. “This is a despair tour,” he says.
Through chapter after chapter, we experience a panorama of suffering: the adoptive father of a killer; a shooter who’s gained insight, 17 years after his crime; “a sleepy-eyed open-faced twenty-two-year-old, wears his hair in braids and has a quiet demeanor about him, a shyness really,” who survives an attack that leaves a bullet lodged in his back, breaks street code by naming the shooter, then lives scared; the mother of five at the funeral of her murdered partner; a father in shock right at the fresh scene of his son’s murder, interviewed by an industrious crime reporter. And more. And more. It’s an unsparing inventory of mayhem and grief.
Kotlowitz says of the book, “It’s not a policy map or a critique. It’s not about what works and doesn’t work. Anyone who tells you they know is lying. … [It’s] sketches of those left standing. … Such grimness. Such despair. Such darkness.”
He portrays some wondrously resilient characters who have prevailed. At its heart, though, “This is a book about death — but you can’t talk about death without celebrating life.”
He speculates, but only briefly, on the layered causes of this violence: “if you’re black or Hispanic in our cities, it’s virtually impossible not to have been touched by the smell and sight of sudden, violent death … [where] a sense of future feels as distant … as a meteor shower.”
He inventories adverse factors for “young men and women who are burdened by fractured families, by lack of money, by a closing window of opportunity, by a sense that they don’t belong, by a feeling of low self-worth. And so when they feel disrespected or violated, they explode … because so much other hurt has built up.”
He seems to downplay reform through political discussion, in our polarized times, saying it’s “impossible to have a reasonable conversation about poverty in the country.”
So he offers what is possible: an adoration, in an almost religious sense, an abiding sharing of deep sadness, a compassionate revelation of the painful situation of each of his characters.
Writers trade off as they compose, between enchanting readers and specifying complexity. Alex Kotlowitz has written daringly, accomplishing both, and readers who join his harrowing journey surely will emerge with deeper and kinder understandings, and perhaps feel morally implicated by their understanding of the grim realities his summer tour shows us.
Mark Kramer founded the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism at Harvard, and has been writer-in-residence at Smith College, the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism and Boston University, where he still teaches.
An American Summer
By: Alex Kotlowitz.
Publisher: Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday, 287 pages, $27.95.
Event: Club Book, 6:30 p.m. March 11, Dakota County Library, 199 E. Wentworth Av., West St. Paul.