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When Grandma worn nothing but a smile

Elizabeth Buzzelli - May 4th, 2009
But a Smile

Nothing But a Smile
Steve Amick
Pantheon Books

By Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli 5/4/09

Nothing But a Smile isn’t about WWII, it isn’t about the porn industry, it isn’t even about your grandmother. Instead, this novel by Steve Amick, the Ann Arbor writer whose last book was the Michigan Notable Book: The Lake, the River & the Other Lake, is the intimate story of two young people during and just after the war, trying to make their way, suffering through tragedy, youth, impetuousness, and nobility as often as they suffer stupidity.
It’s about the kind of idealism that age crushes. It’s about America still reeling from loss. It’s about morality that deviates from the usual, proscribed morality of religion, springing instead from necessity, and then from joy. The war is over. They are the ones who lived. The future is theirs.
Still, the book begins with a grandchild cleaning out the attic.
Sally Dutton, the boy’s grandmother, is going to live somewhere else. In the attic lie secrets. The grandchild finds antique photo equipment from the days when Sal and Wink, an injured vet, began their girlie business in Chicago, while they waited for Sal’s husband, Chesty, to come home from the Pacific.
And then there are the photographs, revealing the famous ‘Two Sallys’, beautiful, half-naked girls caught in photo shoot after photo shoot, in magazine after magazine. These are the unattainable pin-ups found in lockers and on board ships across the world. These are the girls guys lusted after, but wouldn’t want to marry—not when they got back home to the folks, the old friends, and to childhood sweethearts. Here comes the double-standard which catches Sal and Wink firmly by the neck as Chicago settles into post-war chaos.
It began for Sal (one of the Two Sallys) when the Chicago photography store her husband and his family had owned started losing money. With the war on, cameras aren’t selling, photo stock is in short supply, and even their photo developing business has dropped off. Sal has to find a way to exist, until Chesty, the true photographer in the family, comes home and takes back the shop.
Sal’s got two things going for her. She knows how to take photos and she’s got a good body. Together, the two spell out cash—not a whole lot, but enough to keep her and the store alive.
Wink is a wounded veteran, home due to his injury. A cartoonist, Wink’s hurt his right hand, his drawing hand. He tries to retrain his left, but it isn’t happening. Instead he finds photography.
Wink’s the noble sort. He checks in on his buddy, Chesty’s, wife, Sal, to see how the store is going and that Sal is okay. A break-in and a scared Sal brings Wink an offer of an empty apartment above the store, security for Sal, the answer to a prayer for Wink. The apartment leads to an affair with one of Sal’s friends, Reenie, and the branching out of the small girlie business into a full fledged company with their famous ‘Two Sallys,’ photographed in all states of undress and coyness. Pure World War II stuff. A lot of hypocrisy; a lot of scary government men hunting for Reds and subversives; and even run-ins with petty crooks sniffing around the photo store for a piece of the action.
Maybe the story sounds straightforward, a slight entertainment, but it isn’t. Twisted together with a gentle and slowly unfolding love story, this is a story of the times: treatment of GIs right after the war, the scarcity of goods and living spaces, government paranoia that began as the war ended and culminated in the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. There is a lot here.
Some of the research sticks out a little—but how does a writer drop in famous people of the era, songs, places, events, without the reader’s eye being drawn to that name, or song, or fact? Amick sets his scenes well. Like a Hopper painting, things in this part of Chicago are a little down-at-the-heels, a little stark, and a little depressed; the perfect backdrop for the seedy little business that these people get themselves into, never once thinking there might be consequences.
The two Sallys wear wigs. Of course, no one will ever recognize them. They set up a photo shoot on the Chicago lakefront—of course no cop will be around to arrest them as the women strip. And of course, real life won’t settle in on them like an iron fist, with death, fear, fire, and fate overtaking them. Ever.
But back to that attic where the ‘Two Sallys’ have been hidden since Wink and Sal ran to Michigan respectability, a new life, a kid, a grandkid, and the hidden boxes. Amick never tells us what the grandson thinks as the nude or nearly nude women, one his grandmother and one his aged aunt, come to light.
What you find yourself hoping is about what you’d hope for from your own grandkid, or son. Maybe little bits of Wink and Sal in his blood. Little bits of our braver selves. I wanted the kid to take a look, give a big thumbs-up, then put the family photos away to show his own grandkids some day; to prove to that kid how people never really change—generation to generation, only the way we judge each other.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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