My Kind of Bookish Town: Seven Great Chicago-Set Novels

ChicagoSkyline1While New York is often considered the center of the literary universe, our city is no slouch either. And Chicago-set novels are a bone fide literary Kryptonite for me — I can’t resist ’em. Here are seven of my favorites.

Chicago Novels

7. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger — An easy choice, sure, but how can you not love a novel that features prominently the Newberry Library, the Field Museum, and Grant Park, among other Chicago landmarks. Plus, well, it’s a pretty darn good novel.

6.The Making of Zombie Wars, by Aleksander Hemon — I just finished this goofy novel about a 33-year-old failing Chicago screenwriter named Joshua who has various romantic misfortunes, so I don’t know if it’ll ultimately remain on this list, but I can tell you this: I really liked it. Hemon is sneakily funny here, even as poor Joshua makes a mess of his life. It’s dude-lit, complete with plenty of sex and violence.

5. The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg — This is a great dysfunctional family tale about how the grown children cope with their parents’ divorce after nearly 40 years of marriage. This novel features a daughter who lives in Andersonville and attends a Smashing Pumpkins concert at a “downtown festival.” It’s a wonderful, underrated novel, and as Attenberg’s new release, Saint Mazie, is getting terrific press, if you’re unfamiliar with her work, why not start with this one?

4. Native Son, by Richard Wright — In light of current events, Wright’s 1940 classic about poor, black, 20-year-old Chicagoan Bigger Thomas resonates even more these days. It’s a devastating story and a must-read.

3. The Instructions, by Adam Levin — This massive Chicago-set tome is about a middle school kid who leads a revolution at his grade school. Oh yeah, and Levin takes 1,000+ pages to cover four days. That may sound daunting, but you’ll be fascinated with the character Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, who may or may not be the Messiah, and his wisdom beyond his years.

2. Office Girl, by Joe Meno — Sometimes, a book just hits you right at the right time, and that was the case for me when I read this in winter 2012. It’s the story of two early-20s hipsters who bicycle around Chicago during the winter of 1999, just trying to get by. Meno’s ability to capture winter in Chicago and the general malaise of the characters in sparse, unadorned prose is just dazzling. I read this book in just two sittings, and really, really loved it.

1. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow — For my money (and many other people’s as well), this is the quintessential Chicago novel. After all, Augie is “an American, Chicago born.” You can take the Augie out of Chicago, but you can’t take the Chicago out of Augie.

(If you want a more complete list, here is Chicago Magazine’s list of 40. But it’s a little outdated, so here are five more modern Chicago novels, several of which are in this post, too. And finally, here are two that just came out in the last month or so, and are both great!)

About Greg Zimmerman

In life, as in literature, Greg Zimmerman enjoys a nice mix of the high- and the low-brow. He writes (and uses too-frequent parentheticals) about books at his blog, The New Dork Review of Books. Greg's day job is as a trade magazine editor, and he slings books part time at RoscoeBooks.
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