One of the more piquant pleasures of Porter Shreve’s The End of the Book—a novel that offers the attentive reader a surfeit of pleasure—are the contrasting sensory details of Chicago near the turn of two centuries.
There is the stench of the city’s “hog butcher to the world” stockyards and the aspirational buzz of amateur actors and musicians at Jane Addam’s progressive Hull House that George Willard, recently arrived from Winesburg, Ohio, experiences in the early 20th century. And there is the sleek, high-tech cool of the iconic Harbor City towers where Adam Clary and his wife Dhara Patel settle at the beginning of the 21st century.
In the contemporary story line, Clary works for a Google-like tech company in a unit responsible for digitizing books. Adam, an aspiring novelist with a moldering MFA in his background, cannot really disguise the fact that he despises the job. This creates a kind of bad-vibe, not-a-team-player judgment about him that his wife, a rising star in the same company and the daughter of hard-working Indian immigrant motel operators in Dayton, Ohio, tries to shield him from. But this is not actually the beginning of Adam’s problems. He has also become responsible for his erratic, estranged, ailing father, a thrice-married former English professor once considered the leading authority on the writer Sherwood Anderson, author of Winesburg, Ohio, one of the great works of American fiction. Adam’s life is further complicated by the appearance of a former girlfriend seeking to reconnect.
In the novel’s early-20th-century story line, George Willard steps out of the pages of Winesburg, Ohio, and off a train in Chicago and moves forward with his life, pursuing his dream of becoming a writer. It is soon apparent that dream is not to be realized. In an episode that brings to mind the rags-to-riches novels of Horatio Alger, George is struck by an automobile owned by a wealthy advertising magnate who ends up employing George in his firm. George eventually marries the boss’ daughter. Like Clary, he must take in his feckless father who has lost his hotel to bankruptcy. He reconnects with the girl he loved as a teenager back in Winesburg, who has also come to Chicago to follow her ideals.
In other words, parallels between these two storylines abound. Each story develops enough tension and velocity to make it compelling in its own right. But in the end the trajectories of George and Adam also diverge, especially when it comes to love. In the widening gap between the stories, a reader is encouraged, yes, to think of the parallels, but also to consider the differences: cultural differences between this century and the last; shifting American business mythologies; changes in our notions about filial piety, romantic love and the romance—and financial dependency—of being a starving writer.
Shreve’s first novel was the highly acclaimed The Obituary Writer. Until he and his wife, the novelist Bich Minh Nguyen, moved with their children to the San Francisco Bay area last summer, he headed the creative writing program at Purdue University. He is clearly a fan and a student of Winesburg, Ohio.
But The End of the Book is not merely a tribute to Sherwood Anderson and his best book. The novel leads readers to suspect that Adam Clary might just be the author of George Willard’s continuing story. Thus Shreve’s novel becomes—in addition to everything else—a playful and intelligent exploration of how a writer takes experiences from life and spins them into a work of fiction.
The End of the Book is a wonderful read, and Shreve has written it with an economy and grace of style in which Sherwood Anderson would surely recognize a kindred spirit.