There’s a scene in The Wagon, Martin Preib’s recent and remarkable collection of essays, where he describes pulling over to the side of the road to scribble down a note, deep in conversation about the work of Walt Whitman, about what that work accomplished and how. “My terms are useless: realism, religion, conviction,” Preib says, describing the scene. “I pull the car to the side of Devon, along a no-parking lane. I write the terms on yet another scrap of paper. ‘Do they go together? Can a sign of the right realism be that it leads to this religion?’”
With Whitman, with Melville, Preib feels and is drawn to “their strong conviction, a faith in their writing, a religious sense.” Indeed, he is a devotee of this religion himself; his car littered, literally, with fragments of thoughts and observations, artifacts of his commitment to “a kind of faith that lingers in realism, a belief that knowing the city will lead somewhere beyond the city.”
Preib, while intent on becoming a Chicago writer—the kind of writer, like Ben Hecht or Nelson Algren or Mike Royko, who makes sense of the city, its moods and multitudes, finding a form to preserve some fragment of its stories and voices—is not your average daydreamer scribbling at the side of the road. The car he’s driving in the above scene is a squad car, and his thoughts on Whitman aren’t in the form of soliloquy, but an impassioned conversation with his partner, a fellow officer in the Chicago Police Department.
Yet it is devotion to writing that has led to a career in law enforcement. After hitchhiking around the country, working as a doorman and a bouncer, illegally parking cars of wealthy shoppers for a ten-spot, and dressing in a giant dog costume and dancing for the amusement of drunk clubgoers, Preib decides on police work as a way to better study the city. He’s already well acquainted with the humiliation, the irony, the everyday cruelties of the world and its arrangement. His new job affords him more intimate examples, like his first assignment out of the Academy transporting corpses to the morgue in the squadrol or paddy wagon.
Here among the dead—or, more specifically, here, loading the dead into body bags, dragging the dead down hallways, past the silent detritus of life in studio apartments—Preib’s thoughts wander to the function of the chorus in classical drama. And he thinks again of writers like Whitman, like Melville, who took precisely such raw disorder of human existence and gave it meaning by framing it; who gave it meaning by giving it form.
Contemplating the faces of commuters on the Red Line, reflecting on the power and responsibility of language use by police officers, or feeling his way through a game of basketball, Preib, like the great writers he admires, has conviction that realism is the path to a specific, religious view of the world. Accumulated observations in and about the city, “go beyond the misery and mundane facts from which they arise by providing greater meaning, more possibilities, more complexity.”
Preib encounters traces of specifically Christian faith, but the religion that obsesses him is, as for Melville or Whitman, something beyond the limits of Christianity or any other creed; the “religion” at the center of these essays is the root of endurance, what keeps the people of the city slogging on, day to day. This is a stripped-down, gritty notion of the religious, but one that resonates with deep association in American history and, as Preib argues, one rooted not in metaphysics or inherited tradition so much as in the “promise in seeing the city at it is.”
Maneuvering around a leaky corpse, trying to figure out the best angle of approach to avoid getting fluids on your uniform or your skin—if such a moment is the root of a religious conception of the world, this religion is not for the weak of heart or stomach. Indeed, “realism” emerges from rough scenes—encounters with gang bangers, crime victims, the hopeless, the dead—scenes many civilians will never see. But Preib writes as a cop, with more than a passing interest in being read by his fellow cops. His indicting descriptions of self-serving lawyers, journalists, and professors is coupled with a persistent sense that only a select few are able to handle the truth of the world as it is. To embrace Preib’s realism, then, “You just have to be tough enough to ride it out.”
Preib is, to borrow his description of Whitman, “a tough motherfucker.” His prose has the blunt gait of an incident report, yet deeply measured, contemplative, each clean sentence clearly the work of lengthy reflection. His interest is not just in the facts, after all, but in how one can make sense of these facts; interpretation, in this case via formal framing through writing, allows one to go from the “realism” of the streets to the “religion” of the city.
Which is why this book will be of interest to many people who consider themselves uninterested in toughness, in police work, or in Chicago; this is a book engaging in serious philosophical reflection on what it means to interpret the world. Consider Preib’s righteous anger about the use of cameras and microphones for constant on-duty surveillance of police officers. He makes sense of this not merely in terms of privacy rights or how such policy exemplifies condescension toward the job of cops; rather, as a writer Preib is troubled by the confusion at the heart of this system of recording, as if the “information” obtained can stand alone, free of context or explanation.
“Where are you from?” Preib wants to ask the antenna that downloads each patrol car’s data at the end of shift, “What is your worldview?” Preib is no cold recording device; indeed, it is his examination of the process of bringing meaning into the world—even as he gives form to the varied faces of the city with these essays—that makes The Wagon a rich source for anyone interested in such meaning-making, especially within the “religion” of American writing.