IN THE LAST GREAT DAYS of the Powerhouse Newspaper Columnist, the late, great Jim Murray, who wrote about sports for more than thirty years at the Los Angeles Times, guaranteed his place in the Metaphor Hall of Fame when he noted that Rickey Henderson’s strike zone was “the size of Hitler’s heart.” But Murray was no isolated titan; in those days, terrific columnists were thick on the ground: Art Buchwald, Mike Royko, Murray Kempton, Molly Ivins, Jimmy Breslin, Edna Buchanan. Alas, they have no real peers today, for their natural incubator, the daily newspaper, is the bloodiest and most public victim of the digital revolution.
Chicago Flashbulbs, a wonderful collection of short-form essays, many of which originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, suggests that there’s still hope for readers who appreciate the general-interest newspaper column. The collection reveals its author as a man of parts, a writer of great skill and eclectic cultural discernment. Cory Franklin, whose work has appeared the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times, and New York Post and has been excerpted in the New York Review of Books, is also an award-winning physician who served as Director of Intensive Care at Cook County Hospital. In this volume, he has gathered and categorized his prolific newsprint output into as fine a collection of newspaper columns as anything published back in the glory days of the form.
That a general-interest columnist be a person of parts is an important qualification for this kind of writing, for one can never be certain what topics will be grist for the deadline mill. Chicago Flashbulbs is roughly divided into themed sections: “Entertainment,” “People,” “Life,” “Current Events,” “Sports,” “Chicago,” etc. Not surprisingly, given the author’s profession, some of the strongest pieces are in the “Medicine & Science” section, which includes Franklin’s ruminations on the AIDS epidemic (he started writing about the disease in the 1980s), shifting boundaries in medical ethics, Medicare reform, purported links between vaccines and autism, and the national nursing shortage. The “Chicago” section includes pieces devoted to athletes—Ken Holtzmann, Dick Selma, Derrick Rose—as well as Franklin’s excoriation of Chicago’s WBEZ for dropping jazz programming (although the piece is undated, this presumably appeared in 2006.)
“Chicago” also includes my favorite Franklin piece, “Letter to a New York Friend,” which internal evidence suggests was published in 2008. It begins like this:
“Here in Chicago, where the audacity of hope began, everyone is beginning to believe that it just might happen this fall. A lot of people believed it never could happen. Generations went through their whole lives desperately hoping against hope to see it. They eventually grew old and went to their graves, disappointed and empty. Before those people died, for years the words of pundits and experts cut them to their marrow—they said it was impossible, or, at least if not impossible, it might take another hundred years before the country would actually see it. But now even the experts acknowledge this might finally be the year. Even today, it’s not a sure thing, even money at best, but if it does happen every single person will tell their grandchildren they were alive to see it, even those who don’t like the idea now.”
Several hundred words later, it ends like this:
“What’s that you say Barack Obama? An African-American becoming president? Well, that would be remarkable. But that’s not what I was talking about. Truth to tell, haven’t really been paying much attention to politics, so don’t know much about him.
No, I was talking about the Cubs winning the World Series.”
Among the memorable pieces in Chicago Flashbulbs are “Life’s Final Snub: Getting Cheated on Your Obituary,” “Uh Oh, Oh Jeez: Let’s Go to the Teleprompter,” “The Platters and the Civil Rights Movement,” “The Greatest Baseball Player Ever,” and “The Death of EveryMom,” the last a reflection on the death of Barbara Billingsley. Chicago Flashbulbs closes with a well-constructed long-form essay about the legacy of the U.S. military herbicide Agent Orange.
That not all of the pieces note original publication dates is one shortcoming of Chicago Flashbulbs; the other is the curious lack of a Table of Contents. These peccadillos aside, Academy Chicago is to be commended for this compact, handsome collection of ephemera from a very gifted writer.
June 2013, Academy Chicago Publishers
$22.95, paperback, 304 pages
—Reviewed by Patrick Quinn
Read some of Cory Franklin’s work at PoliticalMavens.com.