Reading a novel that takes place in your home town is always fun, a bit like spotting yourself in the background of a friend’s wedding pictures. Oh yea, that’s us all right! So residents of St. Paul will enjoy—or more likely revel in—John Osander’s new book, Call Me Kick! Set in 1934, Kick zags from Summit Avenue to Calvary cemetery to the Minikahda golf course and the caves of the Castle Royal Nightclub, piecing together a colorful mosaic of St. Paul (at least rich St. Paul) the year after Prohibition ended. Anoka and northern Wisconsin also get some show time. Oh, and add to the list of people who will love the book all F. Scott Fitzgerald devotees, because the book uses three characters from The Great Gatsby—by special licence, mind you—and they stay pretty much true to themselves. But really, I think even someone who’s never been to St. Paul, or read a single Fitzgerald story, would get a kick out of Kick, because it’s a bubbling, wheeling, devil-may-care carnival ride with its own internal logic and quirky rhythms.
Most historical novels use a clear, unadorned writing style. Osander throws that out the window in the first sentence (“A nurse, the dead-eyed giraffe one, whisked me from where I waited in the pheno line toward the dreaded institution basement”) and keeps on going, tossing us a barrage of ‘30s arcana: Luminol, iceboxes, crepe de chine, Fatima cigarettes, Red-Seal records. Our guide for the ride is Kick Carraway, niece to Nick Carraway (of Gatsby fame), and part of the reason the book seems half-mad is that Kick herself is not that far from crazy. We meet her first in the State Asylum in Anoka, where her wealthy but rather cold-hearted father has committed her after having one too many emotional breakdowns. She and her uncle Nick get along on much friendlier terms, and now that he has returned from the East their relationship has grown closer:
Nick visited as often as they allowed, every other Saturday or Sunday. “Soon, Kicker. It won’t last forever.” He immediately drew an Activity room chair close to mine, away from the girls by the piano. He relaxed in gray flannels with a Yale blue tie. His kiss landed so high on my forehead he was into acorns (the color Paul called my hair). “Lovely, lady.”
I fished for a reply. “You think maybe I add a hint of tint to this pale-walled place?”
“Kicker, your eyes capture all the blues: dreams of sea, sky spreading, blue silk hose. Your cheeks pick up disks from the sun, gold as doubloons.”
Eventually Kick escapes Anoka—only to get into much hotter water, in the form of the Dillinger and Ma Barker gangs. To explain how Kick falls in with this crowd would give away some surprises in the plot, but let’s just say by 1934 the gangsters had discovered that kidnapping rich industry barons was much more lucrative than robbing banks. Because all of the gang members in the book were real people, and most of the events parallel real events, the narrative has a certain freshness, an unpredictability to it. For example, Kick describes how a fourteen-year-old kid who collects guns spotted Dillinger running behind Lincoln Court apartments. He was about to shoot the famous outlaw from his bedroom window, when his mother came in the room and made him put the gun down. It’s the sort of implausible sequence that fiction writers avoid, but Osander includes it—because it really did happen.
I’m not partial to crime fiction, so the second and third parts of the book, where Dillinger & co. take center stage, wasn’t as absorbing as the first. As far as action and adventure go, though, it’s well done, and there’s an unforgettable sequence near the end that describes Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis’s escape from authorities through the Wisconsin wilderness.
Mobster antics aside, the real star of the book is Kick, and her relationship with Nick. I like his character here better than in Gatsby—on his home turf he’s more the kind and wise mentor, less the dispassionate observer of humanity. Their relationship—which may be a little too close for what would be considered normal—forms the background of Call Me Kick!, and for me its best moments. Nick and Kick, playing an informal game of field hockey, or sitting on Nick’s front porch, or walking along Summit Avenue. Just talking, as Fitzgerald’s characters often did, about their time, and place, and how funny and sad it all was.
- Joel Van Valin