Uptown, Chicago Attorney for the Homeless, Alan Mills, Reviews Citizen Cárdenas

Homeless people have rich back stories and inner lives. Citizen Cárdenas is the rare novel to take this seriously

May 11, 2016

Uptown, Chicago Attorney for the Homeless, Alan Mills

Uptown, Chicago Attorney for the Homeless, Alan Mills

“I’m dead. I’m dead,” yells Gato.Jesus (“Gato”) Cardenas is an old gang-banger, now turned down and out hustler who is barely making it. He was kicked out of his rooming house when it gentrified, and is now living in the park.

George is an old leftie–went to Cuba as a young man, worked as a community organizer, joined the Harold Washington campaign for mayor, then got a city job as a reward. But when Harold died, he went “straight” and became a database manager for a medical record company. George and Alexia have been married for over 30 years, and have lived in the same Wicker Park building for just as long.

Of course, Gato is not dead. Gato’s social security check has been cut off because his payee died. George straightens that mess out, and tries to help Gato stabilize his life. But Gato’s life is not so easy to straighten out. He is unclear of his birth date, claims to have arrived from Cuba in the 60’s, and fought in Vietnam. But he has no identification, and neither immigration nor the army have any record of him. Without id, Gato can not get food stamps, or subsidized housing. His check never stretches to the end of the month–a problem compounded by his alcoholism.

George becomes increasingly frustrated, as Gato’s life cycles from crisis to a modicum of stability, and back again. The reader is compelled to keep turning the pages to find out if Gato will finally get it together, or will George lose patience and leave Gato to crash and burn.

In the end, the book is a lesson in Christianity–both in the literal and broader moral sense. George is religious, and some people in the book are saved through a local Pentecostal church. But the broader lesson is that to give your life meaning, you need to help others. A good lesson, in a great book.

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