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Book Review: Ghosts of Chicago by John McNally

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John McNally’s new story collection Ghosts of Chicago is full of portents, mysterious circumstances, and haunted people. McNally has the ability to get to the essence of his characters and allow them to live their stories and just like real life, they are full of unexpected events and comic turns. There is ravaged beauty, bits of magic and hopefulness in these stories.

The book opens with “Return Policy,” a very affecting story about Mark Timbers, whose wife had left him after 18 years of marriage. Mark gathers up all the items in his house that were given to him as wedding presents and sends them back to their givers, because he felt that he no longer deserved them. Along the way, he attracts a stray dog, a dead cat, a deadbeat neighbor and the sales girl from a department store that was going out of business. How the story ends demonstrates how people come together in times of grief. It brought tears in my eyes.

In “I See Johnny,” a young woman, known to us only as Miss Betsy, is the host of a successful local children’s TV show. The titular Johnny is the boy Miss Betsy dated when she was 16, who was killed in Korea. The title refers to a segment in her show where she holds up a hand mirror (with the mirror removed) to the camera, and calls out the names of the children who have written letters to the show, “I see Martha! I see Jim!” What seemed strange to Miss Betsy is that even though there are lots of mail, she never sees Johnny. There are no little boys named Johnny. Every week she looks for Johnny, whose very name evokes some nameless longing in her.

Who hasn’t tried to play detective and try to track down somebody from their past? In “The Immortals,” Rudy is sitting in an El train when he glimpses a woman standing outside who he recognizes but whose face he can’t place. The woman sees Rudy, recognizes him and calls out to him as the train leaves the station. Too late, Rudy remembered who this woman was: Leila, his ex-wife whom he hadn’t seen in 15 years. Leila took all their photo albums when they divorced after a brief marriage, telling him that it will be easier for him to forget her if he can’t remember what she looked like. A year after this chance encounter, Rudy picks up another lead on the whereabouts of his ex-wife, who is rumored to have been decapitated.

In “Men Who Love Women Who Love Men Who Kill,” Brandon Dawson is dating a girl who is in still love with a man in Death Row. Today, however, is the day that man is to be sent to the electric chair and Brandon goes out to buy an engagement ring. However, the fates are conspiring against him…

The Silverfish is the unlikely superhero in “The Remains of The Night,” but this story is about his butler. Crazy.

Author James Frey was crucified by Oprah for not being completely factual in his biography, A Million Pieces. In a similar fashion, in “The Memoirist,” an author may have fudged his facts a little too far, and his readers are going to give him a taste of his own medicine.

In “Contributor’s Notes,” what seems like a straightforward biography about the author John McNally, turns into a hilarious romp with the type of punch-in-the-gut writing that shows us McNally’s mastery of the short story form. I loved this story! And what’s even better is the twist in the ending which was so unexpected that I was frickin’ amazed at the McNally’s inventiveness. It’s the perfect story to end the collection.

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  • Jim C

    I read this book and the last story totally ROCKS. Overall the collection was very good, although there were a couple of two-pagers in there which could’ve been taken out. Great job.

  • if you haven’t read John McNally’s THE BOOK OF RALPH, you should definitely get it. taking John McNally’s talent for characterization, i think you will enjoy the book as well.