“Chicago,” by Glenn Head

October 16, 2018

I picked up “Chicago,” by Glenn Head, on impulse from the library because I live in Chicago and it’s about Chicago. I stupidly assumed the author was roughly my age (mid to late 30s to early 40s) and thus his experience leaving his wealthy suburban family and playing poor person pan handling in Chicago was set in the 90s and he was begging around the intersection of Clark and Lake. Instead he was doing his panhandling on the South Side of Chicago before I was born. Also he’s a bigger asshole then I thought… And I thought he’d be an immense asshole. But hey, Chicago

This book is autobiographical, or at least based on the author’s biography. But the protagonist’s name is spelled differently so I assume we’re not meant to take this as literal autobiography and recognize that some liberties have been taken.

Possibly fictional Glen has discovered Nihilism and alt comix and decides that he’s got the skills he needs to be an alt comix pro despite being a recent high school grad. His parents pay for him to attend a pricey art college so he can make a living doing alt comix like his hero Robert Crumb. He quickly drops out of school after deciding that there’s nothing any of the teachers can teach him because you’ve gotta, like, experience LIFE, man.. which is apparently impossible to do while also attending life drawing lessons.

Inspired by a female friend of his who he has a crush on, and who took off to Florida before coming back pregnant, he drops everything to go to Chicago with nothing but the clothes on his back. He doesn’t talk to anyone about this, doesn’t contact his parents, and doesn’t take a coat with him. He is, essentially, a child in a teenager’s body. With no money and no shelter he’s taken in by a well dressed Black man named Aaron who allows Glen to stay with him until Aaron is eventually evicted for non payment of rent. In order to eat, Glen begs at street corners on the north side of Chicago, the part where white people live. He also hangs out at Playboy Headquarters, back when filthy stinking (white male) bums were allowed to just sit around waiting rooms and visit staff cartoonists. Eventually he’s given a bit of piece work and I just… have a hard time seeing a Person of Color, especially a woman, getting a gig that way. Like, can you imagine the secretary allowing a Black dude to hang out for the entire day? Anyway, Glen also gets the chance to meet R Crumb.

Glen eventually calls his parents, of course, and goes back to his insulated life in the burbs and the big comfy house his parents have. He tries to call his crush but her mom won’t pass the phone over because of the gal’s history… her boyfriend pressured her into sexwork and she came home pregnant, after all, and Glen knew and didn’t tell anyone. Glen, of course, managed to avoid sex work and only had to deal with men making passes at him. After literally shooting up his house, Glen eventually goes to several different art schools, dropping out of several before finally getting his degree. Just… being able to pay for several different art schools… I know that college was less expensive then, even art schools, but come ON. He remains entirely unaware of his immense privilege throughout the entire book. Just gotta fight that man, man, y’know?

The book jumps ahead to Glen as an adult… divorced, with a child, living in a really nice home that he purchased with money from his parents. His crush shows up and infodumps her horrendous life, a life of drug addiction and sex work, although she’s clean now. He gets to finally indulge in sex with her and then she goes back home. Just… she flew out to see him, have sex, then go back home? What? Why? Glen’s a pretty shitty parent, forgetting to pick his kid up, too.

Although he’s aces at drawing architecture, Head’s humans are drawn a little too loosely and cartoonishly in the way that people who aren’t comfortable with anatomy draw humans. Hands are reduced to flippers when they aren’t in close ups. People praise Head for his detailed work, which mostly means he draws a whole lotta lines. I get the feeling he’s capable of drawing humans better and more realistically but wants to keep the alt comix feel. He also draws women’s nipples no matter what they’re wearing.

I was overall unimpressed with this book. Glen is an immense ass and it feels like Head is trying to vomit out his experience without really examining it or how it affected him as an adult. It feels like he hasn’t really changed and hasn’t really reflected on his experience.

I wonder if a woman writing something similar would be as well received. I wonder if his crush’s experience would be as praised… or even see the light of day except online. I wonder how a Black man’s experience abandoning a life of wealth to panhandle would go over. Or a Hispanic man’s. Head really doesn’t go into that, doesn’t think about that. Every aspect of his book is self centered.

I know this book will be popular with certain people. Reviews for it that I’ve seen are largely positive. But initial reaction to this book was revulsion and I’ve revisited it a few times to see if it was simply a knee jerk reaction. But my opinion hasn’t changed. This book’s a hard pass for me.

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