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Heartbreak And Humor In 'Ghosts of Chicago'

Ghosts of Chicago

In Ghosts of Chicago, the smart and funny follow-up to the story collections The Book of Ralph (2004) and America's Report Card (2006), author John McNally revels in a gallery of Midwestern misfits and their stories of hard-luck love. Ranging from a children's variety-show host to a very large bug, the characters populating McNally's collection may not share the same circumstances, but, as the book's title suggests, they've all slipped the bonds of a life they once treasured and now wander the rooms of their former existence wondering who switched the furniture.

We find some good old ironic heartbreak in "Return Policy," in which a husband whose wife has left him decides to return all of their years-old wedding presents and becomes, in the process, an unintentional matchmaker. In "Men Who Love Women Who Kill," heartbreak grows creepy when a man who can't believe his beloved prefers a death-row rapist to him slowly grows into her stalker.

In a supernatural twist, "Remains of the Night" sets the superhero Silverfish (yup, the book bug) against his assistant, who is in love with a woman who only has eyes for his scaly boss. And in "Contributor's Notes," the author turns the narrative lens on himself, telling the tongue-in-cheek story of swiping the great love of another author's life: his manuscript.

A meditation on the folly of expecting anything — whether a lover or America as a whole – to remain constant, "I See Johnny" is the book's masterpiece. (.) In it, a 1960s children's show host, Miss Betsy, slowly unravels after falling for her acid-dropping makeup artist. By the end, her ex has replaced her on the show and Miss Betsy has returned to her mother's home a mute, no less disfigured by heartache than had her fickle lover actually plucked out her tongue.

The ghosts of these stories aren't just consumed by loss, they're imprisoned by it — choosing, each time, to make their lives shrines to the past rather than taking a stab at the unknown future. In a lesser writer's hands, such stories would be predictable retreads. But McNally makes us see the real tragedy: in the absence of love, embracing grief can be the next best thing.

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