In a novel as brawling and boisterous as Chicago itself, Scott Simon delivers a tale both laugh-out-loud funny and deeply moving, capturing the multiethnic tumult of big city politics.
The mayor of Chicago is found in his office late at night, murdered, facedown in a pizza. As police race to find the killer, the interim mayor, Sundaran "Sunny" Roopini, tries to juggle his responsibilities as a recently widowed father of two teenage daughters while herding his forty-nine fellow city aldermen toward choosing a new mayor. Over the course of four days, this raft of colorful characters-heroes, rascals, and pinky-ringed pols of all creeds, colors, and proclivities-will clash, as Sunny, a flawed but decent man, tries to hold together his family and his city.
In his second novel, the host of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition paints a detailed portrait of Chicago politics, beginning with the sudden death of the mayor. The focus quickly shifts to Indian vice-mayor Sunny Roopini, who must assuage a traumatized electorate while laying down a few paving stones for the mayor's successor. Matters are further complicated when the police discover deadly amounts of liquid nicotine on the late mayor's pizza, a revelation that inspires a mayoral staffer to leap from his apartment window. Roopini's brief interim mayorship proves to be a minefield of favors, accommodations and downright extortion--the latter by a U.S. Attorney determined to dig up any ethical hiccup he can. The suffocating political life is enough to beckon Roopini toward retirement (particularly with his two daughters on the cusp of adulthood), but the city doesn't seem willing to let him go. The proceedings can be fascinating, but Simon is too attached to his (admittedly impressive) descriptive powers, dragging the narrative through a swamp of mannerisms, fashion sketches, culinary processes and (especially) political maneuvering. Politics junkies will get off on the detail, but readers with less than a passing interest in the sausage-making that goes on at City Hall may be frustrated. (Mar.)
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Random House Trade Paperbacks
April 12, 2009
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Excerpt from Windy City by Scott J. Simon
1 THURSDAY NIGHT The mayor was found shortly after eleven with his bronze, brooding face lying on the last two slices of a prosciutto and artichoke pizza, his head turned and his wide mouth gaping, as if gulping for a smashed brown bulb of garlic with life’s last breath. Blood from his gums had already seeped into the tomatoes, prosciutto, and caramelized onions. His blue oxford-cloth shirt was unbuttoned. His red tie had been slipped out of its knot and trailed forlornly from his collar. His heavy gray slacks were laid across the back of the sofa where he was sitting for his last meal, illumed by the cold glare of the television set. The security guards who had rushed in heard the ice in the mayor’s bourbon crackling while it melted (it was that fresh) over the cloaked gallop of their thick shoes against the great carpet. Three men’s magazines were fanned across the sofa, each with the kind of cover that, in Indiana, would call for the woman’s bosom to be enrobed with a brown paper strip. But the guards’ attention was drawn to the bold red letters they saw marching across the mayor’s boxer shorts: big daddy. One of them reached gently for the mayor’s arms to feel for a pulse. Another slowly passed a hand over his eyes, and softly called his name—it was how they were trained—while the third muttered some kind of code, colors, numbers, alphas and tangos, into a minuscule microphone in his hand. Mrs. Bacon, the mayor’s secretary, edged close to their burly gray shoulders to peer into the mayor’s blank brown eyes and shakily point her hand at the slogan on his undershorts. “I’m sure they were a gift,” she said quietly. It was the mayor’s habit to have one extra-large pizza from Quattro’s delivered to City Hall by ten each night, after he had returned from an evening’s round of appearances. His standing order specified extra cheese and prosciutto. When the kitchen staff at Quattro’s deduced the pizza was destined for City Hall, they spontaneously contributed extra glistening strips of onions and grilled peppers. His security guards joked that two officers were required to carry the pizza across the threshold of the mayor’s office; it felt like carrying a manhole cover in your arms. So much extra cheese had been loaded onto the pizza that when anyone took a bite—an endeavor that involved opening one’s mouth as if for a molar examination—they had to pull gooey strings away from their teeth to almost the length of their arms. Most politicians groused that over an evening of cocktail receptions, fund-raising dinners, and precinct meetings, they never got a chance to eat. They needed to keep both hands free for handshakes and clapping shoulders. They couldn’t chance that a sprig of parsley from a canapé might blemish their smile and photograph like a vagrant’s missing tooth. They didn’t want to be seen swallowing steak tartare on a round of toast, only to be asked, “Do you know how that cow was slaughtered?” But the mayor’s immense appetite was too well publicized for him to plead self-restraint. He risked political peril if he appeared to be indifferent to the specialties of any neighborhood. This guaranteed that on any given night, the mayor consumed cheese pierogi, chickpea samosas, pistachio-studded cannolis, and/or sugar-dusted Mexican crescent cookies in his nightly rounds. And consumed them in toto, for half portions were considered fraught with risk. “How can I tell the good citizens of Pilsen that I have to go easy on this magnificent tres leches cake,” he remonstrated, “because I’m saving room for the ale cake in Canaryville? They might suspect that I truly like only two of the tres leches. I