Heinemann's hero is one Maximilian Nutmeg, 'a mildly incompetent, mostly harmless petty crook' with one eye on the main chance and the other on his wife, Muriel, whose libidinous appetites supply one of the novel's running jokes. Max lives in the house where he was born in Chicago with Muriel and an assortment of relatives, including his nonagenarian mother, who spends all afternoon smoking Kools and swilling gin. There's also Max's sister Belle-Noche and her four children, the progeny of four different fathers, none of whom she bothered to marry; plus Amaryllis and her husband, Easy Ed, another dumb crook. The house is home to a posse of mangy cats and two pet ferrets, of which the best that can be said is they don't have speaking parts.
The novel's other hero is Chicago itself, whose denizens are unwitting prey to Max's latest money-making scam: the time-honoured and highly sociable practice of panhandling (a word which suggests a degree of guile not available to our own begging). Heinemann has written an ode to Chicago in which streets and squares are lovingly - and lingeringly - detailed. We learn as we go: this monument was 'named for' that great personage; that building commemorates this bit of local history. He further indulges this digressive bent in zany portraiture, filling us in on any passer-by who happens to snag his attention. Each Chicagoan is a walking short story all in himself, and the author flits from one to another with the restlessness of a hummingbird.
If Cooler by the Lake sounds, on this evidence, like a celebration of urban life in all its teeming variety, you'd be right. You may also, like me, detest it utterly. How can this be? The plot, enjoying no high status here, concerns Max's discovery of a grey leather wallet, lined with eight new dollars 100 bills, property of one Loretta Spokeshave; against all his baser professional instincts, Max decides to return it, and en route to the Spokeshave household in deepest suburbia he collects a fistful of tickets from traffic violations.
It's pleasant enough as a story, but poured through the book at an achingly slow trickle, and impeded throughout by the interminable round of digressions, the yarn very soon becomes a yawn. There is a particularly wearisome stretch of four pages in which Max recounts to Muriel all his dreams from the night before. Equally infuriating are the frequent distillations of cracker-barrel philosophy. After yet another just-fancy-that apercu, we get the triple-decker follow-up: 'but there you are, as the saying goes; there is more than one peculiar contradiction in this world; there are times in this life when there are astonishing surprises at every turn.' It's not clever, and it's certainly not funny.
It might seem rather churlish to carp at a book that is so evidently good-natured. Heinemann, after all, just wants to entertain. Throughout, I felt like a miserable wallflower at some boisterous wing-ding, the sort where laughter is loud, back-slapping bonhomie reigns, and nobody says anything funny. I have an awful feeling that many will find Cooler by the Lake a life-affirming, heart-warming comedy. I did laugh, once, at the chapter title 'My Mouth Wrote a Check that my Ass almost Couldn't Cash' - it seemed one of the few phrases which did not deliberately milk the reader. For the rest of the time I got to thinking what the Windy City was 'named for': could it be for the story-telling technique of its writers?