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Powells.com
Saturday, March 22nd, 2003


 

One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko

by Mike Royko

A review by Chris Bolton

I was introduced to Chicago columnist Mike Royko by my high school freshman English teacher. English was always my best subject, and the other three English teachers I had in high school were positive and receptive to my work. But the freshman teacher refused to let me cut corners. When it was clear that I was coasting — say, when I failed to support an argument in a paper, preferring to throw in a clever quip or observation instead — she called me on it. The last paper of the year, the one I worked the hardest on, was the only time she gave me an A... an A-minus, actually. At the time I despised her. Now I wish I’d had her for all four years.

Royko’s writing has a similar effect on me. At the time, I found him crotchety and insufferable. Years later, when I stumbled across a copy of One More Time, I felt an instant affinity — something like nostalgia, but damn it, I’m still too young for that. This collection of Royko’s columns (and its follow-up, For the Love of Mike) includes some of his best and best-loved pieces from four decades of writing.

Royko published his first column on September 6, 1963. He wrote one every single day — save for a brief sabbatical in the late Seventies, after the death of his first wife — until he died of a brain aneurysm on April 29, 1997. His final column ran on March 21; both the first and last columns are included in this book.

Mike Royko went from covering county government meetings to composing a weekly column on Chicago politics. As his pieces became more popular, he was promoted to a daily column. He held steadfastly to the local beat; when the Daily News wanted him to cover the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, he turned the assignment down, preferring, in his words, to write "about local stuff." Luckily for Royko and his readers, history spun him in a different direction. The civil rights movement, Vietnam, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. — the tumult of the Sixties refused to be ignored; it is no coincidence that more columns are reprinted from 1968 than from any other year in the book.

One More Time is valuable for more than sentimental reasons, or even just the admiration of Royko’s pungent, sharp-edged, undeniably entertaining style. It can be read, quite simply, as a front-row record of the past four decades in American history. Those of us who have only read about the notorious 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention in history books will get a taste of what it was like to run from baton-wielding cops:

I’ve lived in this city all of my life. I’ve never been robbed, mugged, or seriously threatened….The only time I’ve run to save my hide was Monday night. A group of Chicago police were after me. My crime was watching when they beat somebody who didn't seem to deserve it.

Royko wasn’t mawkish, but he was capable of producing some beautifully touching writing, as in the column he wrote after Jackie Robinson died, recalling the first time Robinson played in Chicago:

Robinson came up in the first inning. I remember the sound. It wasn’t the shrill, teenage cry you now hear, or an excited gut roar. They applauded, long, rolling applause. A tall, middle-aged black man stood next to me, a smile of almost painful joy on his face, beating his palms together so hard they must have hurt.

By the Nineties, Royko was something of a dinosaur surrounded by small mammals; I picture him clattering away on an old manual typewriter in the midst of the quiet murmur of computer keyboards. He fought nobly against the tide of political correctness, though he seems merely curmudgeonly when he disputes worthwhile causes like feminism — and I can’t quite shake that sick feeling in my stomach when I read his anti-Clinton, pro-Dole column. But then I flip back to the Vietnam-era pieces, where Royko’s claws tore huge hunks of meat from the establishment. In the dawn of a preordained war in Iraq, I take comfort in Royko’s stance that patriotism doesn’t mean shut up and follow, but rather point out stupidity and fearlessly question incompetence — be it in the government or the blowhard on the stool next to you. I wish he were here today to comment on Bush, Inc.'s crusade.

Royko represents a lost icon in today's media. The Royko of my imagination is no doubt as romanticized as Philip Marlowe: the chain-smoking, beer-swilling reporter with ink-smudged fingers and rumpled ties who lived and breathed for the chaos of the newsroom, yelling over the constant clatter of typewriters and the shrieking of rotary phones. I imagine today’s newsroom is a quieter affair, with computers and cell phones, and cautious opinions voiced very respectfully.

Royko wasn’t interested in being respectful. He had no intention of being agreeable. His straightforward opinions, on everything from the type of people who would throw rocks at civil rights marchers to the utterly incorrect way to serve a Chicago hot dog, may inspire you to laugh or clench your teeth, but they will inspire you. And once you start reading these pieces, you can’t put them down.


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