We began this year reading Just Kids by Patti Smith and asking whether "the act of wanting to create art inherently political or does the work itself have to be political in intent?" The feeling was that to decide that one can somehow live wholly as an artist such as Patti Smith has done is a political act in and of itself. We were thinking about this sentiment as we read Chicago author Joseph G. Peterson's new novel Gunmetal Blue, as well as Wanted: Elevator Man back to back, the latter because we somehow inexplicably missed it when it came out, and that gap just wouldn't do if we are to be the Peterson completists we strive to be. Peterson is one of Chicago's more prolific, yet still (quite undeservedly) more obscure, writers who represents the best of what it even means to be a Chicago writer - local, even parochial in the best sense of the word, blue collar, writing of this beautifully ugly city in all the ways Chicago writers do - no whiff of pretention, nor even the urbane. The characters remain of this world, denizens of Wabash Avenue, train tracks, grime, and bars, with their ineloquent timbre, and grand speeches, making their way in a world that does not care about them, and does not exist to anyone who lives on a coast, any coast, and outside the city limits. And yet, all of that is an exaltation of what Peterson does, not what he is, a working-class writer as grinder, and finder of truths, who is all artist, but still going to work, nose to grindstone at all times. We write this, because his workman-like qualities are not political in and of themselves, and this despite the poetry he brings to these qualities in his characters, but his work is subtly political at all times, and never more so than in his new joint Gunmetal Blue, a noirish detective tale that is ultimately about guns, access to guns, and the trail of blood and loss they inevitably leave behind when available, and accessible, to all. Is Gunmetal Blue an anti-gun book then? Maybe, but that's too simple.
It's an exploration of grief and all that violence tears from us. It is also about guns and how guns and violence are never far enough apart. It is also a triumph, as Peterson books tend to be, which brings us to Wanted: Elevator Man as well, a commentary certainly on those left behind by an economy, and a body politic, that no longer exists to serve the little, or is it common, man, or woman, assuming it ever did, but also a mission statement as it were on the kinds of stories, and more importantly, the kinds of characters who populate Peterson's life's work. We were particularly struck by a line late in the book, which is a sort of mission statement for this missions statement, writing by us that is too cute and meta by half we know, but here we are reading back to back Peterson pieces, and swimming in all those tumbling Peterson elocutions, and so, meta, and cute, we are. But now onto that line (page 131): "Home," he said aloud. "Home. Where has it gone and what have I come to?" Where has it gone and what have I come to? This is the essence of Peterson, the search, the confusion, and the constant seeking of identity when nothing feels quite clear or defined, not even when it should, and we believe we deserve, or at least know better. It's also certain to change your life, not just the line, but Gunmetal Blue, and all the rest of it too.