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It was with a bit of trepidation that I waded into Gregg Shapiro’s slim new volume, Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories (Squares & Rebels). It wasn’t the book’s quality that gave me pause, but its specificity—Chicago is a city that I’ve never visited and don’t know very much about. Luckily, while Shapiro’s wry and entertaining tales are deeply rooted in his hometown, they explore a geography that will be instantly recognizable to many of their readers: the inner life of young gay men growing up in the not-so-distant pre-Internet age.
Most of the stories are distinctly set in the Windy City during the 1970s and 1980s and nearly universally revolve around a gay male narrator or protagonist. And while these tales do offer an interesting contrast to the world of today—where former owners of defunct gay bars are blaming their decline on the prevalence of hook-up apps—the rush of young love, the thrill of the chase, and the illicitness of a secret romance will be recognizable to members of every generation.
Lincoln Avenue is a quick read, partly because the stories are short, but also because they’re fun and engrossing. Each installment expounds on a different facet of young gay life. “Threes” portrays badinage in the form of a phone call between two friends, in which one believes he’s acquired psychic powers that have caused him to summon his high school crush and ex-boyfriend within 24 hours; “Marilyn, My Mother, Myself” tells of a mother who’s coping with her son’s homosexuality by sending him every piece of Marilyn Monroe paraphernalia she can get her hands on; and the book’s eponymous story is an erotically charged tale of young love dotted with sex in parks and romantic kidnappings to run-down motels.
A few of the stories, however, leave you wanting more, in not necessarily a good way—they seem to end right when things are getting good. And there’s only one story that does not fit the mold of young gay life: an unflinching and explicit chronicle of the narrator’s young upstairs neighbor, Lily’s, brutal physical abuse at the hands of her parents. It’s certainly an interesting and worthwhile piece on its own, but in the context of the rest of the stories it’s distractingly out of place and makes them seem almost frivolous by comparison.
Overall, though, Shapiro has crafted a lively collection of stories that are fun, nostalgic, and sexy—sometimes all at the same time. And while Chicago natives will surely enjoy an added layer of meaning, the fact that readers of all ages and backgrounds can relate to something in these tales and chuckle at them with knowingness is a true testament to the author’s talent as a storyteller.
Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories
By Gregg Shapiro
Squares & Rebels
Paperback,9780979881695, 100 pp.