Graveyard Special, by James Lileks

…Two people + their problems < hill of beans. Not an equation we understood. And he shot the guy, too: the soundtrack seemed extra sharp – it echoed in the bare room, and I felt Tatiana jump when roscoe barked, saw her smile when Claude Raines threw in with justice and liberty. I wanted a cigarette. I wanted to snap a match and smoke and sneer at a dying Nazi and make a remark he’d carry down to hell. But the Minnesota Clean Air Act forbade these things.

For some time, James Lileks of lileks.com (I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this, but I did a half hour of radio with him once) has been telling us about a series of interconnected mystery novels set in Minneapolis he’s been working on. Graveyard Special, the first of these, is out at last, for Kindle users. Other formats will be forthcoming.

Graveyard Special is a semi-autobiographical book, loosely based on Lileks’ student days, when he worked at the Valli Restaurant (dubbed the Trattoria here). There are lots of familiar landmarks in this story for me, because although I didn’t live in the University neighborhood of Dinkytown myself, my friends and I used to head over there quite often to eat in our own college days, a few years earlier. We liked to dine at Bridgeman’s or Best Steak House, but we never patronized the Valli. I know exactly where I was when this story is supposed to have happened too (fall of 1980). I was a few miles away, in south Minneapolis, attending Brown Institute of Broadcasting on Lake Street.

Robert Thompson, the narrator, is an art student from Motley, Minnesota (a real town, I swear to you) whose life at this point revolves around his shifts at the “Trat,” where most of his housemates also work, and where they love to hang out in their off hours to play the arcade machines. He’s waiting tables one night when the night manager takes a break to huff some propellant from a Redi-Whip can and dies, shot by a bullet coming through the restaurant window. Being a witness gives Robert the chance to meet a very attractive reporter for the University student newspaper, and when he begins to notice suspicious behavior on the part of some of his housemates and some denizens of the Trat, he brings them to her, just as an excuse to get to know her better. Which eventually gets him in over his head, and involves him in bombings and a bloody Zamboni ride at a Gophers hockey game.

As you’ve probably guessed, the emphasis is on ironic humor and characters, rather than on mystery. The mystery story is actually kind of weak, as the hero’s motivation is essentially nothing more than getting into the pretty reporter’s knickers. Lileks is writing an elegy here, for a time and a place and old friends. I can understand that. Although I’m older than he is, one of the book’s characters is correct when he says that the fall of 1980 was really the end of the ‘60s. So the U of M he knew is very much the U I knew (as an acquaintance). Without preaching, he delights in gently poking the pretensions of the day – the reflexive leftism, the conviction that Reagan’s election would mean the end of the world, even the belief in global cooling that was pretty much unquestioned at the time.

Although Graveyard Special is a very funny book, showcasing all James Lileks’ celebrated gentle wit, it’s also pretty sad. Or maybe that’s just my reaction, because it reminds me of my own youth.

Mild cautions for language, adult subject matter, and drug use. Recommended.

2 thoughts on “Graveyard Special, by James Lileks”

  1. 1980. Reminds me of late night runs down to the Chateau for a slice of Perry’s Pizza back when three bucks got you two slices and a side salad, maybe even a glass of pop.

    Brown Institute. Reminds me of dating the daughter of one of the instructors there. But we broke up a year before this story.

    1980 was the end of the Sixties. I was a hippie wannabe feeling like I’d missed out on an era, growing up too late. My afro was out of style long before I realized it. As my Dad used to say of his fashion sense, “I was so far in I was out the other side.”

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