Book of the Week: ‘Painted Cities’ by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski

I like to think of myself as a Ray Bradbury Dandelion Wine-type of guy in a Marcel Proust’s madeline kind of world. That’s not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the first two volumes of In Search of Lost Time that I’ve made it through; I just find myself going back to my beat-up old paperback copy of Bradbury’s recollection of childhood in Green Town, Illinois, because although it’s bucolic and old timey, you just can’t help but shake the suspicion that there’s something a little sinister under the surface. Bradbury calls it fiction, and Dandelion Wine might not be as attractive to some readers as his science fiction or Fahrenheit 451, but it’s undeniably his way of recounting what he remembers from childhood, mixed with what he wishes he remembered.

The Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen in which Alexai Galvaviz-Budziszewski grew up is about an hour south from the suburb of Waukegan where Bradbury lived as a child (and on which Green Town is based). Galaviz-Budziszewski’s Painted Cities is a book that also finds the writer telling us what he remembers from growing up in one of the once-forgotten pockets of a city that likes to hope it can push people and problems to the side in the hopes that they’ll go away. Unlike Bradbury, however, Galaviz-Budziszewski’s remembrance of things past doesn’t resemble the quaint yesteryear of Old Town, USA; Galaviz-Budziszewski’s neighborhood might be a closer fit to a type of dystopia writers like Bradbury and others feared. A real life, modern American dystopia where dangerous gangs run the streets, and the garbage piles up. The place where Galaviz-Budziszewski grew up was rough (I say “was” because you routinely hear “Pilsen” and “gentrification” lumped together these days), but the author’s debut collection of stories can see a little past that, capturing humanity and the little rays of light that filter through the darkness in this stunning collection of Pilsen recollections.

When Galaviz-Budziszewski recalls what he says was the “perfect ghetto miracle” of a “toxic haze glowing bright green as if its lights were filtered through emeralds,” in the story “Supernatural,” (about a polluted canal that locals flock to for its supernaturally colored waters) that Galaviz-Budziszewski says is filled with “dumped appliances, cars, street-gang hits.” People think there’s something more to the glow, so they keep coming, more and more, like they’re going to kneel down to a piece of toast with the Virgin Mary on it. This strange incident reunites people with old friends, puts a temporary hold on some of the longstanding gang wars that have been going on in the neighborhood for years, and Galaviz-Budziszewski captures it for just the perfect amount of time (five pages) then lets it go. He writes about the kids he knew — the ones that he knew, even when he was young, who would get killed; he shares his cramped living spaces with the rest of his immigrant family; the smell of Mexican food, the innocence of childhood, and the unspoken terrors of adulthood are all packed inside of these stories that signal not just a great new voice from Chicago, but a voice capturing a side of America that is hard to forget.