I was 30 pages into Denis Johnson’s first novel, Angels, when I discovered that one of the scenes takes place in the very same neighborhood, on the very same block, where I currently live, near the corner of Clark and Wilson in Uptown.
It is here that a drifter named Bill Houston pulls out a gun and robs a hardware store. In the scene, Johnson paints a picture of urban decay and seediness, an appropriate setting for Bill’s mercenary existence, one where violence has become mundane and survival uncertain. Wilson Avenue, he writes, “was covered with innumerable bits of trash that picked up and set down in flocks like paper birds feeding alongside the buildings.”
The blighted block portrayed in Johnson’s novel seems to have nothing to do with the one I live on. Like many of the stories I’ve heard about the neighborhood, his depiction seems to belong to an abstracted past, a parallel dimension that I — having moved to Uptown only a year or so ago — have no possible way to access. My block is now clean and safe, a short walk from hipster barbershops, cafés, and vegan eateries. The crumbling Red Line stop nearby has been refurbished. The avenue is no longer sullied by paper and garbage fluttering aloft in dystopian moodiness. The hardware store that Johnson mentions — if it existed at all — has disappeared. A Walgreens and a Staples now stand on the corner. The houses are well kept and project durability and strength, not transience and desperation.
Reading those passages from Angels felt like stumbling across an old postcard of my block, a faded picture of a vanished place. Indeed, literature has always been a kind of necromancy. The medieval historian al-Maqrizi was said to have spent his whole life obsessively cataloging every square inch of his native Cairo, hopelessly describing every home and back alley, knowing full well that it would all one day be gone. But it is seemingly pointless toil like al-Maqrizi’s and Johnson’s that allows us to commune, however briefly, with those dead cities over which our living ones are built.
Valer Popa is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Ploughshares.