Bob Boone might be Chicago’s most famous teacher. Since the 1960s he’s been educating youth of Chicago and its suburbs, as well as those in New York and Germany. In 1991, he founded the terrific Young Chicago Authors program, a forum for creative writing and performance among teens, earning him an invite to the White House by Michelle Obama, and a “Chicagoan of the Year” nod by Chicago magazine in 2002.
While continuing to teach, Mr. Boone has also found time to pen a few textbooks, a teaching memoir and now “Forest High”—a “Winesburg, Ohio”-esque cycle of nine loosely related short stories centering on the eponymous fictional high school.They are not flashy stories, nor are they without flaws. But Mr. Boone knows how to spin a yarn, and each one in this–his first book of fiction–is a yarn worth spinning. They are stories about teachers and students, though who fits which role isn’t always clear. We have second-generation educators, the angsty children of angsty parents, kids who have graduated to wildly different futures.
The best of the bunch is “Funny in the Summer,” about the burgeoning friendship between two teachers—one in his sixties, the other in her twenties—that might be heading toward something more. Like all of Boone’s stories, it wedges itself between the things we understand to find meaning in the space between.
“The Caddy,” the last story in the collection, is exceptional, too. The story of two thirty-two-year-old Forest High graduates—one who goes on to Princeton and a career in finance, and another who goes to work a thankless job at a country club—is wonderfully enigmatic due to the shaky first-person narration by the title character, who understands far less of what’s going on than we do.
Boone’s trouble, however, is the occasional slouch into 101-level creative writing boo-boos. He has a proclivity for giving exposition through dialogue, and he tends to wrap up stories too neatly, letting sentimentality poke its head into the frame.
In the story “Special Project,” a teacher is telling a colleague at their local watering hole that he has forgotten that a student who has skipped class most of the semester is indeed his student, and he is devising a plan to cover it up from the administration.
“Jim, old buddy,” he says, “they might call you in on this. You teach right next to me. We’ve been colleagues for years.”
Of course, the speaker is saying this for our—the reader’s—benefit. It’s not for Jim’s, who we’d have to assume is aware to the fact that he teaches next to this guy and has for years.
That said, these minor grievances do not by any means torpedo this fine book, and are far outweighed by its strengths. Namely, the three-dimensional portraits of teachers and students, their twining fates, bound in solidly constructed, realist narratives—ones that sparkle with the feeling of lived experience. (Eric Lutz)
“Forest High: Short Stories”
By Bob Boone
Amika Press, 82 pages, $15