Friday, January 16, 2009

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott

There are two fine lines that Abbott had to navigate when writing Sin in the Second City, a historical account of the Everleigh Club, the fanciest and most infamous brothel in Chicago at the turn of the century.

The first line is between two moral positions.

Abbott has two heroines here: Minna and Ada Everleigh, the jewel-encrusted madams who elevated their little corner of the vice district beyond the dirty dance hall and onto a level of elegance and sophistication that attracted millionaire visitors and international attention. Minna and Ada are characters that the author clearly loves. As we follow their story from a mysterious lowly past to their glorious position as quiet, powerful queens of vice in a vicious city, we are invited to fall in love with them as well. There are pimps and madams that we can scorn, lesser characters who live down the street from the Everleighs, who run shitty dives and beat their girls, drug their customers and stick to their own floors. But the Everleighs are a different breed: smart, ethical, pure.

If the Everleighs are the heroes, then the villains must be the reformers, the demonstrators and politicians who were trying to eliminate the vice district and "save" the girls who had "fallen" there as prostitutes. Among the characters on this team are pastors and evangelists, pious ladies, and also city officials trying to look good and crack down on crime. The problem with villainizing this side of the fight is that they actually did have a point. The danger with making a madam your hero is that there actually was a lot of horrifying stuff going on in these houses, stuff you don't want to cheer for, and can't fall in love with.

So, as a writer, do you position yourself with the madams, and giggle and titter your way through the book, pretending it's all so naughty and wry, and those stuffy old reformers are just party poopers? Or do you position yourself with the reformers, and spend the book pushing out that really new and interesting concept that prostitution is bad? Maybe there's a third solution, to just report what happened, be historically accurate, and educate us all so we can make... oh, wait, I just fell asleep while suggesting that as an option. So, none of those are books that I would want to read.

Fortunately, Abbott is smart. Very smart. And her smart book can present all these possibilities simultaneously. This is not an expose of the horrors of segregated vice in turn of the century Chicago. Nor is this a blushing homage to all those fabulous madams and the sexual excesses of the times. No one is exempt from criticism here. Abbott tells the stories of those vainglorious preachers and the hypocritical politicians, but also shines an unforgiving fluorescent light into the depths of vice: the strip-and-whip fights where girls lashed each other bloody for an audience, the girl's palm rotting from syphilis while still performing its handjob, the lies, the greed, the corruption, and all of it.

No one is exempt, that is, except the Everleighs themselves. In understanding this, I began to understand where the moral compass of the book truly points. I believe that Abbott would say that the sins of the vice district were black enough -- the sins of the white slavers and the opium dealers and the lower madams operating their 50 cent dives. The Everleighs, however, weren't doing anything very wrong, and in shutting down their clean, sophisticated, elegant club, where the men were treated fairly and the girls lined up to get a job, where the health and well being of the harlots was a priority and the customers were treated like customers, not sinners, the authorities threw the baby out with the bathwater. That is, I think, the way the book gets out of its predicament.

This moral subtlety allows the book to transcend that "choice" between the whores and the reformers, and allows the story of the characters to flourish without the weight of a judgment or the tension of the absence of judgment.

The second line that Abbott dances down is a literary one. She is, of course, telling the true story of actual people, and the research that went into this book is amazing. One look at the bibliography and your jaw will drop. However, there are things that cannot be known from research. The biographer's job is to tell the story in an engaging way that will live on the page, without embellishing the facts too much, to navigate between too strict a focus on reality and too fanciful an elaboration. Abbott accomplishes this brilliantly. Everything in quotation marks, in the book, was actually said by the real Everleighs, or other characters, and recorded in court documents, journals, or letters. But Abbott's story goes beyond the bare facts and delivers a prose that reads like fiction. None of the "we can't possibly know" or "it's unclear" but loads of vibrant descriptions, delightful details, and a narrative sense that really brings the landscape of the levee to life.

Sin in the Second City exploded my expectations. You know I loves me some violated dichotomies, yo. By defying the obvious choices, and creating her own rules, Abbott pays the Everleigh sisters great honor by putting them in the context they deserve.

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