Saracen, Taylor. “In the City by the Lake”, 13 Red Media, 2018.
A Closeted Mobster
Set in Chicago during Prohibition, we have the story of a closet mob member named Viktor Mikhailov who follows in his father’s footsteps and joins the relatively insignificant Russian mob. When he is given an assignment that none of his comrades want, he’s pleased and thinks that he can use this to show his strength and his ties to the others. Chicago has been taken over by organized crime, with several outfits vying for a piece of the action of Prohibition. Viktor’s group runs openly gay Towertown and it is Viktor’s job to provide whiskey to the queer clubs that he frequents on the downlow. His group becomes wealthy while in an unconventional relationship with his top client’s muse, a redhead named Calvin Connolly who is as enigmatic as they come. The plot focuses on the emotional journey of a twenty-one-year-old closeted mobster living in the “Pansy Craze” of Chicago.
Vik has not had an easy time and his family has not been good. Vik strives to be his dad’s favorite; his mother died in labor; his brother eschews the family business of organized crime to go into education and to learn to rise above mob mentality. Vik’s cousin Maks, is filled with familial love but that works on Vik’s nerves and we do know why. then there is Rosie, one of the queens of Towertown who repulses as queer not only because of her sexuality but also because of her gender. She is introduced as a drag queen who does shows at Vik’s favorite club and is through their story that we get to know the most we can about Vik and that he is affected by the end of Prohibition, the Great Depression, and increasing persecution against gay people. His struggles are the same struggles of society at that time.
Vik, is a gay bootlegger during prohibition who makes a living providing the gay clubs of Chicago with their much needed supplies of liquor. He’s also from a family of Russian immigrants and we read of his struggles to deal with living in with his adopted country. Although Vik knows that he is gay and accepts himself somewhat, he has trouble being labeled as a homosexual man. He is afraid that such a label means that his masculinity is lessened. If that is not enough, we must remember that the novel takes place during the Great Depression and the Victorian values that began to appear during that time -and this had the result of the persecution of many members of the LGBT community.
As of unexpected, the novel is also about the relationship between Cal and Vik, but the real emphasis in on Vik’s reflections and fears. While he sees and presents himself as a skeptic and tells himself he can’t afford emotions.
The intimacy between Cal and Vik is lovely in that it is, by and large, playful and real even as Vik deals with the new emotions of jealousy and tenderness. We immediately see the contrast between the two men but that is fine.
I found it very easy to identify with Vik since my family is of Russian heritage and while not involved with the mob, I faced some of Vik’s issues. I have always found it interesting that the majority of gay man as they begin to deal with their sexuality see themselves as the only one even though they know others. This is the true “other” and by this I mean that we can fit if we want but it takes a while until we reach the desire to fit in.
We read about Chicago of the time and how it is part of the story. While this is the story of one man’s journey to accept himself and love himself, it is also a story about many of us who had issues with self-acceptance and internalized homophobia. And yes, this is a love story, beautifully rendered but far from perfect— but that’s okay since all of us are far from perfect.