City Water Light & Power, and Something in Between

1. City Water Light & Power is the first novel by writer Matt Pine. Peripherally, it’s a coming-of-age novel, and, yes, ‘coming-of-age novel,’ in most cases, can bring to mind the image of an hours-long navel gaze. City Water Light & Power is not that. It’s sympathetic without being pandering. It’s nostalgic without being contrived. It’s attractive in a broken-nosed kind of way.

2. To explain, Nelson Algren once said of Chicago, “Once you’ve become a part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.” Along with Jake (the book’s main character, a 20-something college graduate/regular drinker/working a meaningless, unrewarding job/heartsick dude), Michelle (Jake’s life-long friend and confidant and conspicuous person-of-interest), Adrian (a young dude who gets into the real estate biz fast), and the other names that weave in and out of the characters lives, it’s the place—Chicago—that makes City Water Light & Power stand out from its genre companions. It’s not because the place is Chicago (that would be kind of pandering, right?), but it’s because Pine is so conscious of the role ‘place’ plays in framing the story—that’s what makes everything in the story seem so familiar. It’s what makes the nostalgia so potent.
3. Full disclosure: Matt Pine has written for Anobium before, and participated in at least one Anobium reading, so this ‘review’ is not totally unbiased. But what review is, really? Stop kidding yourselves.
4. City Water Light & Power is strongest when you can see the story move. The characters literally come of age in the novel. Some find reward, others find questions, other forget the answers they’re seeking. This is Pine’s first novel, and it’s not always perfect (it can indulge in its physical descriptions, at times), but it’s honest. It’s the honesty of the writer, and of the characters, that makes the story move.
5. What City Water Light & Power does have in common with coming-of-age stories is that, in short, coming of age sucks shit. It’s not hard to say this, but it’s hard to say it well. Pine pulls it off.
6. As a Chicagoan myself, I enjoyed ‘seeing’ the places Pine was describing. Some of the places he mentions, I’ve seen myself. Others are figments, composed of various city fragments and put in place like a straw man. Here, Pine creates a place called Sammler Park. If you’re familiar with Chicago, it seems to share the same DNA as the old-school, working-class communities of Jefferson Park or Edison Park or Norwood Park, or any of the other ‘parks’ on Chicago’s northwest side. At the center of the narrative, perhaps analogically (deciding what is and is not an analogy in City Water Light & Power will (and should) ultimately be your responsibility, because I think you should read this book), is a bar called Lewis & Carol’s, a Sammler Park fixture being threatened by condo development (aka: suburban homogeny, and the depression associated with that). In City Water Light & Power, the developers eventually win in their own way, which begs the question: is the new always better? I believe Pine is asking the same thing: change is indeed constant, but is it always good? Can it be made good?
7. City Water Light & Power opens with an epigraph from the great Saul Bellow: “To count on stability here is madness.” Again, a reference to ‘change.’ And, also, a reification of the role Chicago takes in this story. (If you didn’t already know, Bellow is one of Chicago’s greatest writers, and one of the greatest writers of Chicago. And, yes, there is a difference.) Pine is no Bellow, of course, but that’s what an epigraph is for: giving honor where honor is due. Also, Bellow was a master solipsist, and solipsism is way out of style. Pine’s on point with this one.
Also also, speaking of Sammler Park, consider Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet.
8. There are moments in Pine’s prose that he lets slip a dry comment, like when he talks about the ‘Metaphysics of Cubicle Being.’ It’s just a brief comment, but it’s funny, in a wry way. If Pine writes another novel, and I hope he does, I’d like to see more of that.
9. The title, City Water Light & Power, is also the name of the largest municipal-owned utility in Illinois. If nothing I’m saying about the precedence of place in this novel is sticking, the title should. It describes something monolithic, in a sense. Even in the face of change, Chicago is still Chicago. A lovely so real. Pine gets it, and so does City Water Light & Power.

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