By Rick Kogan
2:46 PM AKST, December 21, 2012
It is no coincidence that the lead character—the insecure, ambitious, lonely, befuddled, athletic, smart and searching John Lincoln—of Richard Babcock’s fine new novel “Are You Happy Now?” is an editor with a small Chicago book publishing house.
It was Mark Twain, though there may be some debate about that (usually is when it comes to literary matters), who coined the phrase "Write what you know." Babcock wisely follows that advice, giving us a compelling look at the world of words and those who love, write, edit and sell them.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
As the editor in chief of Chicago magazine from 1991 to 2011 ("20 years to the very day," Babcock says) and before that an editor of New York magazine, Babcock knows a great deal about publishing and how it has and continues to change. Indeed this book comes from Amazon Publishing as an e-book.
Lincoln is a former Chicago Tribune employee now working as an editor at Pistakee Press, tucked into River North offices. His marriage is on the rocks, and he is seeking to discover a best-seller that might launch him into the big time of the New York book biz (and get him out of Chicago). Meanwhile, he and his red pencil are trudging painfully along "37 Rambles Through the Windy City," a guide book by a doddering University of Chicago professor named Norman Fleace, and a book about the Cubs by former sportswriter Bill Lemke, described colorfully if uncharitably as "stinking of cigarettes and bourbon, thick patches of white hair on his neck that his razor has missed for weeks, babbling on about how the sports editor of the Sun-Times, that sniveling cretin, had maliciously envied Lemke's talent and torpedoed his career."
Lincoln — almost derisively referred to as "Abe" by the prissy boss at Pistakee, Byron Duddleston — finds what he thinks is salvation in the shapely and smart and sassy form of Amy O'Malley, a new employee at Pistakee who had worked on the University of Chicago's very real and mildly notorious sex survey while getting her degree in English. She has ambitions to write fiction and gives Lincoln some short stories to read. He finds talent there, and so the pair begins an awkward collaboration on a novel based on O'Malley's sex survey work. It is titled "The Ultimate Position" and it travels a weird but sadly accurate road through what is the web/blogger-filled realm of modern publishing.
The Lincoln-O'Malley relationship is the centerpiece of the novel and, through many ups and downs and various "positions" (if you get my drift), it rings true.
Babcock draws Lincoln and O'Malley fully. We get to know these two as real people. And he fills the book with some intriguing minor characters, such as Benjamin Flam, the Tribune's literary editor, Lincoln's best pal and dining/drinking buddy at John Barleycorn in Lincoln Park, where the accompanying photo was taken; the aforementioned Lemke, who we see later in softer light; and Lincoln's parents, potent if unseen influences.
The most intriguing characters are Tony Buford, an African-American professor at DePaul University, who is so desperate to have his mundane poetry published that he comes close to blackmailing Lincoln into abetting him, and a wrestling bear with whom Lincoln tussles unsuccessfully in flashback to his teenage years. (Readers may remember "The Wrestling Bear" from a recent excerpt in Printers Row Fiction.)
Chicago too is ever-present, whether it's the lakefront, where Lincoln often runs and bikes; Wrigley Field, "…the outfield grass, the ivy walls, the huge, old scoreboard, all so lush and verdant it's almost dizzying"; the quiet streets of the North Side, and the "L," where "the view offers an unusual perspective on a city … the tracks snake through neighborhoods at about the level of a second-story window, and the train frequently thrusts with astonishing impudence past the living rooms and bedrooms in the buildings along the way."
Babcock began work on the novel while still working at Chicago magazine.
"I wanted to explore ideas of ambition, work and the meaning of happiness," he says. "Think about it. That happiness notion in our country's founding documents ... 'the pursuit of happiness.' It's so American."
It might come as a surprise to some who know Babcock — as if did to me — that this is his third novel.
"I seem to write one every 10 years," he says, a bit faulty on his math.
The first two were 1988's "Martha Calhoun," which is set in the 1950s in a small Illinois town (Babcock was raised in northwest suburban Woodstock), and "Bow's Boy" in 2002, set in the 1960s, in small town Wisconsin, where his new novel also travels for a bit, to great and evocative effect.
Though "Are You Happy Now?" has received good reviews from Publishers Weekly ("A smooth, winning plot") and Booklist, which called it a "smart yet winsome story about the realization of unlikely dreams," Babcock is not expecting to be buried in print praise. The business has changed.
"My first book was reviewed in maybe as many as 100 newspapers around the country; even little newspapers had their own book critics," he says. "Even my second book got 20, 25 reviews. Now it is a whole different world."
Or as he writes in "Are You Happy Now?" the words coming from a New York editor who is courting Lincoln: "Don't get me wrong. I love books. I love authors, too — at least some of them. But the publishing business has to face facts. The game's new. Now it's all names and marketing."
That may be true, but as Babcock displays in his new novel, words that make a good story still matter.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
"Are You Happy Now?"
By Richard Babcock, 309 pages, Amazon Publishing, $14.95 paperback