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Heartbreak And Humor In 'Ghosts of Chicago'

Ghosts of Chicago

In Ghosts of Chicago, the smart and funny follow-up to the story collections The Book of Ralph (2004) and America's Report Card (2006), author John McNally revels in a gallery of Midwestern misfits and their stories of hard-luck love. Ranging from a children's variety-show host to a very large bug, the characters populating McNally's collection may not share the same circumstances, but, as the book's title suggests, they've all slipped the bonds of a life they once treasured and now wander the rooms of their former existence wondering who switched the furniture.

We find some good old ironic heartbreak in "Return Policy," in which a husband whose wife has left him decides to return all of their years-old wedding presents and becomes, in the process, an unintentional matchmaker. In "Men Who Love Women Who Kill," heartbreak grows creepy when a man who can't believe his beloved prefers a death-row rapist to him slowly grows into her stalker.

In a supernatural twist, "Remains of the Night" sets the superhero Silverfish (yup, the book bug) against his assistant, who is in love with a woman who only has eyes for his scaly boss. And in "Contributor's Notes," the author turns the narrative lens on himself, telling the tongue-in-cheek story of swiping the great love of another author's life: his manuscript.

A meditation on the folly of expecting anything — whether a lover or America as a whole – to remain constant, "I See Johnny" is the book's masterpiece. (Read the whole story.) In it, a 1960s children's show host, Miss Betsy, slowly unravels after falling for her acid-dropping makeup artist. By the end, her ex has replaced her on the show and Miss Betsy has returned to her mother's home a mute, no less disfigured by heartache than had her fickle lover actually plucked out her tongue.

The ghosts of these stories aren't just consumed by loss, they're imprisoned by it — choosing, each time, to make their lives shrines to the past rather than taking a stab at the unknown future. In a lesser writer's hands, such stories would be predictable retreads. But McNally makes us see the real tragedy: in the absence of love, embracing grief can be the next best thing.

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Lizzie Skurnick
Lizzie Skurnick's reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and "many other appallingly underpaying publications," she says. Her books blog, Old Hag, is a Forbes Best of the Web pick and has been anthologized in Vintage's Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. She writes a column on vintage young-adult fiction for, a job she has been preparing for her entire life. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.