In The Wagon and Other Stories from the City Martin Preib gives accounts of his life as a Chicago cop that are grim sometimes, witty others, and enthralling throughout. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post lauds The Wagon, published this past May, as a “quite remarkable book that is much larger than its slender dimensions.” Preib agreed to sit down over coffee and discussed with TriQuarterly Online his literary influences such as Walt Whitman and William Kennedy, his decision to become a cop, and the city’s role in his life and his writing.
The Wagon and Other Stories from the City
University of Chicago Press
By Martin Preib
TriQuarterly Online: What’s in your personal book collection?
Martin Prieb: Chucked ’em! I have a small condo, and I just have my Whitman, my Kennedy, and a few other books. I don’t read a lot of books anymore. I read newspapers and magazines.
TQO: I noticed you said in The Wagon that you don’t live by books anymore. When did this become true?
MP: Maybe ten, fifteen years ago? You know in the opening lines of [Walt Whitman’s] Song of Myself when he says, “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, / the shelves are crowded with perfumes,” and he’s talking about books, basically saying, “I know the fragrance, but I don’t smell them. I leave the room and I go outside.” I think he’s saying that bookishness can prevent you from living life to the fullest. I think there comes a point sometimes where you have read everything you can to learn, and then you forget about it and go your own way. I find that if I’m reading other stuff, it tends to creep in on my writing, so I just need to divorce myself from all that, although I do read Whitman and Kennedy all the time. Somehow I just tend to keep them going.
TQO: Did you read more when you were younger?
MP: I don’t think being well-read is that important. I did have periods when I read a lot. I studied the classics—I read the classics, I don’t know if I understood them—but I don’t know if being well-read is that crucial to being a writer. I think that being well-read can make you derivative. It can tie you in to a school of writing and thought that may not be to your best interest. I did read a lot when I was younger, yes. I was a voracious reader, but no longer.
TQO: You mentioned in The Wagon, with regard to the Beats, that you felt that they never really mastered a style. However, earlier you went through a phase where you hitchhiked around the States in pursuit of self-fulfillment. Did your critical attitude emerge later? If so, how did it emerge?
MP: Well, when I was in college the Beats were kind of all the rage. I tried to read them, and I tried to imitate them to disastrous effect. Now, the way they lived, and the way they looked at things, I completely disagree with. I don’t really think they were great writers. I do think they had the great sensibilities of writers. I think Ginsberg had the right take, and I think Ginsberg understood Whitman a lot better than most people did, especially in the ’50s. But I think they had a lot of bad assumptions, and they were very self-indulgent and narcissistic. It was very sad what they did. It was very sad the way kids deified them so much. But people want to read what they want to read. I just kind of rejected that Beat way of looking at things. So I just walked away from it.
But I did used to hitchhike when I was a kid, partly because I read Kerouac and believed that all this enlightenment would come from hitchhiking–and it really doesn’t. It’s sad and melancholy, hitchhiking. It’s lonely. And they all got stoned out. Kerouac drank himself to oblivion. Ginsberg, well, I guess he did all right, but I never thought Ginsberg was a very good poet. I just think he was kind of a fake in a lot of ways. Maybe not—I know I’ll catch hell for saying that.
TQO: Couldn’t you argue that it’s a stage that some adolescents go through—following a Beat type of idol—and it only becomes destructive if they get stuck in that phase?
MP: I think there’s some truth to that. There is a sort of late adolescence where you want this enlightenment. You have to remember, though, that in the early ’60s a lot of really sick people got deified. If you read On the Road, Neal Cassady was a sociopath! He’s a woman-hater, he abuses people, he manipulates people for his own gains, he’s a criminal. He’s cruel—he has a very cruel personality. It can be a stage you go through, but a lot of guys don’t get through it. They end up selling dope, you know. I lean more towards Whitman, who celebrated sobriety and clear thinking as opposed to religious ecstasy. All that Eastern mysticism, I thought it was just a bunch of posing on their part. But maybe I’m wrong, what do I know.
I think in the ’60s a lot of confusion set in regarding sociopaths and creativity. You saw it in an extreme case with Charlie Manson. He seduced those girls that had been living out there. This guy was a monstrous person, you know. And they thought he was all enlightened and all that. It just kind of got out of hand.
And it just wasn’t good writing. Writing is a craft. It’s a discipline, and it must be approached that way. Gabriel García Márquez, he loved the Lost Generation writers, and he said that a lot of people talk about how they drank so much. He became convinced, though, that when they wrote, when Hemingway wrote, he didn’t drink at all; instead he approached his work very soberly, with good heart and intensity and craft. That’s something he took to heart. It was after they were done writing that they would drink. I think that’s the way to look at it.
TQO: You talk about Whitman and his experiences working in Civil War hospitals. From what I understood it, you became a cop to—
MP: To pay my bills. I became a cop to pay my bills. There’s no grand design behind my life, you know. I’ve been very confused in my life. I’ve been very uncertain which way to go. I was just in the service industry for a long time, and I’d met some cops when I was a doorman and they said, “Hey, why don’t you take the test?” It kind of put something in the back of my mind, and I was getting older and I needed a job that paid better with good benefits and a pension. So I signed up. But then as I did it, I felt that the service industry had given me a take on the city that was original and that no one was writing about. And rather than just throw it away and disregard it, I figured maybe it was time to start regarding it, as I think Whitman did. I think Whitman slowly came to the conclusion that his vision of New York and that part of America, the way he saw it, was worth writing about. And that was a slow evolution, but it finally came to the forefront, and that’s where his originality came about. So I was talking in the story about how much I wanted that, and I’m not sure I will ever have it, but that’s what I want.
I think being a cop helps you see the city originally, on the one hand, and on the other it also blinds you to the city. So I’m never certain of my take on things. And I was trying to get that uncertainty through the story. In one line I said something like this: “After all these years in the city, I don’t even know the objects of my own veneration. I don’t even know what it is I worship yet.” You know? And I need to.
TQO: Well, do you ever think of doing something else, as a job? To see your writing from a different angle?
MP: I do. I think about quitting all the time. I would like to quit. With the book I had a great balance between working on the book in the morning and working as a cop at night. But it’s very exhausting. And now that equilibrium seems gone. I just don’t have the energy to do both. I would like to write full time, and I even fantasize about leaving Chicago and moving out to the country. But that might be a terrible move. I might just end up sitting around with nothing. So I don’t know. I think about doing other things, but at this point I’ve lived a long time without any security at all, and I don’t want to go back to that life. I like having a paycheck coming in, and not living in a crappy studio apartment.
It also helps me to stay busy. I always say—and a lot of writers have told me they say the same—“Well, on my day off I’ll get a lot of writing done.” And then my day off comes and I get nothing done. It’s during the days when I have to work that I do my best writing. So I think that if I were to give up the cop job, I would keep myself busy. I would like to continue to write journalism and magazine articles. Maybe I’d take a part-time job at the Y or something every night just to keep busy, keep my day structured. That, and it keeps me out of the bars!
TQO: You said that Rogers Park meant different things to your parents. What does it represent for you?
MP: Rogers Park is a big mystery for me because of what’s become of it. It’s so different from what it was when my parents were there. My mother was a little bit upper middle class. My dad was a little bit lower middle class. My mom lived in a house; my dad lived in an apartment. My dad couldn’t wait to get out of Chicago to own his own house, and my mom always wanted to return to Chicago because she loved the opera. So I think those two sides of Chicago are in me. Sometimes I hate the city and I just want to get out. Other times I just love it, I just love the music and the beauty of it. And then, Rogers Park is kind of a strange place in the city; it’s kind of an outland area, with all kinds of people who are struggling. Some of them are quite lost. I can feel empathy with them. So that’s why I think I like it.
I grew up in the suburbs, and I hated it. I visit my friends in the suburbs, and I can’t stay very long without thinking “Get me outta here!” There’s just no tension. Everything’s convenient. Everything’s easy. It’s so boring! I always had that feeling as a kid: I couldn’t wait when I was eighteen to get the hell out of there, to come here to Chicago.