Songs of Inexperience

Night Moves BY Jessica Hopper. University of Texas Press. Paperback, 184 pages. $15.

Zines are pretty much over; you can tell because people are nostalgic for them. In Jessica Hopper’s new book, Night Moves, a memoir of her younger years in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, she describes a trip to Kinko’s to Xerox early issues of her zine, Hit It or Quit It, for reissue:

On the way home, I stopped and picked up the Reader with my first piece in it. I was carrying these two stacks into the house when I realized they were the exact bookends of my writing life. The little fanzine I brought to the Uptown Kinkos in Minneapolis in 1991, because no magazine or paper or monthly shill sheet would let me write for them—and like magic, here, thirteen years after the fact, I am finally living my teenage dream.

Hopper has been the music editor at Rookie and Pitchfork, and she has published music journalism for more than twenty years. But her writing started in that “little fanzine,” and the scrappy enthusiasm of zine culture permeates Night Moves. Using her journals from 2004 through 2009, she creates a collage of her past. These vignettes jump from descriptions of the neighborhood to scene reports to remembered conversations. The prose is at once detailed and casual. In one entry from a dismal winter, “everyone is smoking again, coasting in and out of a grim yet unremarkable malaise, sleeping too much or hardly at all.” In the next, it’s summer, and “you walk home with your best friend, each carrying an end of your bent-up bike, trying to remember the chronology of the Hüsker Dü discography and it’s all the lame fun you need right there.”

A fanzine was by and for fans, its readers and creators united in loving something—a band, a scene—obsessively. Night Moves is a similarly compiled demonstration of love for a subject: Hopper’s own youth. Shechronicles friends and parties, bike rides and taco stands, inviting the reader to love mid-2000s Chicago as much as she does:

The big lilac bushes in front of the house are blooming, almost obscuring all the supermarket circulars and take-out menus and metallic chip bags stuck in their branchy bottoms. The yard is a fantasia of schoolkid trash and perennials and weeds, with four shitty, rusted-up, and basketed Schwinns chained to the stoop as sentries.

The yard isn’t dirty; it’s a fantasia of trash. The take-out menus only highlight the beauty of the lilac bushes. Hopper digs into the minutiae of her neighborhood in order to find reasons to love it more. The prose itself feels free, like being young in a city—the length and moodiness of the days, the sudden highs and lows, the importance of seemingly unimportant things.

At first, reading Night Moves is like reading someone’s diary. Entries are marked with a date, and each one is a snapshot, a single day, a few hours. Here’s June 12, 2007:

Yesterday at dusk teenage neighborhood boys fought hard under the tree, breaking car windows out with the force of each other’s bodies. Cops came quick. Two boys went over a fence and down an alley, two boys stood dripping blood in the driveway.

Now pyramided piles of Pontiac Safe-T-Glass are in the street; you gotta ride around ’em.

But Night Moves is not exactly a diary: The entries are not chronological, and the picture isn’t complete. And it isn’t a memoir, either: We don’t get story arcs or find out what happened next. A July Saturday in 2004 follows a January Tuesday from 2007. It is as if Hopper were the curator of a museum of her own youth, choosing which pieces to display and where to place them.

Hopper’s half-invented hyperreal telling makes her bookfeel broadly accessible, relevant to anyone who’s ever been young and messy and struggling in a city out of which they were eventually lucky enough to carve a small life.

Actually living in a city has little to do with the things that sound good in stories. Whatever emotions the lit-up skyline or the open fire hydrant in summer elicits are the product of complex and unpretty material circumstances: how public funds are allocated, who moves to what neighborhood, which construction projects are approved, which corporations win distant power struggles. The lives people like Hopper manage to eke out are incidental, carried on the current of larger events. Just as many tales of wild youth rely on the unspoken fact of a trust fund or parental lifeline, Hopper’s stories about friends and bands and shows are also stories about how cheap Wicker Park rent was for a while.

But Night Moves doesn’t linger on these facts. Much like riding around piles of glass in the street, these realities are things to be navigated in order to get to what really matters: the community she has found in her corner of the city. As Hopper notes in her short, present-day introduction, “I was hardly ever without my friends. This is as much about their lives in that particular time and space as it is my own.” She mentions their various shitty jobs in passing and worries at one point about a rent increase, but the subject quickly changes back to bands and gossip.

At the time, the question of how to come up with that three hundred dollars a month probably loomed larger. Allowing the logistics to fade into the background is another way Hopper’s contemporary perspective is present in the book. Looking back, the immediacy of a single day overtakes jobs, deadlines, rent, bills. The book ends with Hopper flying into the city at night: “Suddenly you can see exactly where Chicago begins and ends by the vast gridlay of the amber streetlights.” Pasting together a fragmented picture of her youth, Hopper looks at it from above. Everything is beautiful at a remove.

Helena Fitzgerald is a writer whose work has appeared in the New Republic, Hazlitt, Catapult, and the New Inquiry. Find her on Twitter @helfitzgerald.