Along its meandering way, this narrative details the inner workings of a longtime political machine.
Set in a fictionalized city strongly resembling Chicago, this action-packed novel reveals–and almost exults in–the municipality’s political corruption by tracing the reluctant rise of city Alderman Eamon DeValera Collins, more generally known as â€œthe Chairman.” The novel chugs through the late 20th century, fueled by personal loyalty, behind-the-scenes reciprocity and just a little old-fashioned strong-arming. The Chairman is a career pol in the eighth ward whose sobriquet derives from his powerful and lucrative position as head of the city council’s zoning committee. An old-school backroom dealmaker in a city still ruled by monolithic machine politics, he’s set for life. But when the mayor is assassinated (apparently by organized crime, though no one seems eager to investigate too closely), a young reformer unexpectedly manages to get elected as his successor. The ensuing consequences–for the chairman and the city–take more than a decade to unfold, and the novel takes frequent detours to explore the nefarious infighting, nepotism and graft that motor the machine. But without being an apologia, the book also provides ample evidence of the machine’s efficiency, resilience and service to the public. Quinn, a journalist, provides a wealth of damning detail–both of the politicians’ shenanigans and the voters’ indifference, as long as their streets are safe and the city runs smoothly. What’s most interesting and original, though, is not the down-and-dirty politicking, but the discussion of how the machine adapts to changing times. These cagey bosses modernize their methods by courting the new populations taking over their old ethnic wards–here, African-Americans, Mexicans and gentrifiers replacing the Irish and Italians, among others–and encouraging their sons and daughters to earn fancy academic credentials. However, the book’s wealth of detail and concern for verisimilitude can sometimes bog down the action as the author retraces history to introduce a new character or digresses into anecdotes which may illustrate the city’s corruption, but don’t always further the plot.
Of special interest to native Chicagoans, but will appeal to those who don’t mind keeping a scorecard of the many players.