Vik Mikhailov doesn’t think much of the American Dream or of the people who buy into the belief that it exists. In fact, Vik doesn’t believe in much of anything at all. At least, that’s what he tells himself. It’s easier than acknowledging the truth. As low man in his uncle’s small time crime racket, Vik sells alcohol to the gay clubs in Chicago’s Towertown. It’s Prohibition and booze is king. Vik doesn’t mind working with the clubs no one else will touch — the gay clubs are thriving after all — which means Vik has cash in his pocket. And then, Vik meets Cal.
Cal lives his life without apology. He left his home in Georgia because he wasn’t willing to compromise the truth of himself. Vik finds himself captivated by Cal, who challenges him at every turn to stop living a lie. It’s not that easy for Vik, who lives with his Russian family and works in a business that would never accept a gay man. But between Cubs games, the Great Depression, and personal tragedy, Vik realizes Cal is his American Dream. He just has to find the courage to follow him.
In the City by the Lake is one of those novels that left me with a dozen different emotions while reading it and, even after finishing it, I’m still struggling to process them all. Let me start by saying it’s a great book that explores the complex relationship between two men during a time of national upheaval. The author has done a fantastic job of depicting Chicago in the 20s and 30s, the wildness of it and the freedoms it offered to people of all walks of life, at least for a time. The history is generally well done, blending into the background and feeling like a naturally integrated aspect of the story. The writing is a bit stiff, with odd turns of phrase and it sometimes fails to flow, but I would say this is a small issue and not one that detracts from the overall story.
The real issue with In the City by the Lake is Vik. He’s a miserable bastard. I mean his pessimism is almost too much to deal with sometimes. And I get why, but it doesn’t make him any easier to like. He calls himself a realist, but that’s being too kind and it’s often hard to see what Cal could possibly find attractive about him. Vik’s morose, quick to condemn and judge, and pretty much considers the world to be full of suckers. Cal’s influence does soften him somewhat and this adds to the credibility of their relationship, which spans years. It’s just hard to champion someone who works so hard at being a depressing jerk. That said, Vik’s character does have a realism about him that I could appreciate. Hence, some of my conflicting emotions with the book. Cal, on the other hand, is brighter and more optimistic, but he seems distant and unknowable somehow. It’s hard to connect with him because we know so little. And this is a situation where I think the third person narrative would have worked better. Because we only see the world through Vik, our connection to Cal is seriously compromised.
In the City by the Lake is a truly enjoyable book. Its historical context and plot are well defined and give insight into lesser known aspects of Chicago’s past. Vik is a gloomy MC to be sure and he can difficult to like, much less love. But his relationship with Cal feels genuine and while I wanted to slap Vik more than once, it was still nice to see he and Cal achieve their happily ever after. Consider this one recommended.