Don’ t avoid the obvious: there is a half-naked woman on the cover of Steve Amick’s new book – wearing “nothing but a smile,” which appropriately is the title of the book (wink-wink). She made quite the impression on you when you walked into Nicola’s Books, where Amick was doing a book signing Tuesday night.
How she got there is quite an innocent story. The book, “Wearing Nothing But a Smile,” deftly balances the innocence of WWII pin-up girls with the harsh realities of the war back home.
Amick admits to stumbling on the idea of a book with the pin-up industry central to the plot.
In 2006, the Ann Arbor author said he and his father-in-law had been talking about cheesecake art, especially the work of noted pin-up artist Gil Elvgren, whose work they both admired. Later, Amick was looking for a calendar online when he came across an especially cheesy pin-up.
“It was old – really old amateur photograph of a girl in a bathing suit. Well, actually half a bathing suit,” Amick said. He showed the audience his muse at the book signing and it appeared that no bathing suit was closer to the truth.
He printed out the pin-up and put it in his writing file. A day later he looked at it and made it his assignment to write about that picture.
“I thought it would be a great assignment and I gave it the title ‘Girlies,’” he said. “I’m a writer who works with assignments.” This may be partially derived from Amick’s song writing and art skills. Amick has a CD and drew the dust jacket art for his first book, “The Lake, the River & the Other Lake.”
The result is an unusual look at the war on the home front, complete with a love lost, a love found and survival wrapped around an innocent diversion that gradually becomes sleazy.
The plot is like one of those innumerable WWII war movies. Near the end of the war, the central character, Wink Dutton, returns home with a hand injury which has ruined his cartooning career. He decides to make an unannounced visit to Sal, his buddy’s wife who has stepped in to operate a family camera store in Chicago. Wink rents a room from Sal and discovers she has been attempting to supplement her income by selling pin-up photos with herself as the model. Of course, Wink graciously offers to step in as the photographer.
Amick said that although the book is peripherally about the pin-up industry, that it “wasn’t going to be another Kavalier & Clay,” (which detailed the comic book industry while along the way winning the Pulitzer Prize).
“It is really about two people putting themselves into positions where conflicts and needs are created. I just let flow. It’s a he said/she said novel,” he told the large crowd which filled every seat in Nicola’s on a cold wet night. It may have been gloomy outside, but Amick entertained the group with his wit and readings, which were frequently punctuated with laughter.
It’s a funny book, in addition to being a romantic and historical look at an era. The one scene he read where Sal and her friend Renee buy black market nylons for the budding pin-up business was reminiscent of Lucy and Ethel and their outlandish skits on the Ricky Ricardo show. The book nails the era: the home front city of Chicago, the burgeoning women’s movement, the black market economy and tough and tumble streets of Chicago’s Loop.
If you’ve ever seen a WWII-era interior photograph of a soldier’s barracks, you’ve probably noticed pin-ups adorning a wall above a bed. Not only did GIs carry the folded pin-ups into battle, but they ended up on the noses of bombers and fighter planes (probably some made right here in nearby Ypsilanti). Many a GI’s green trunk came home from the war with Ava Gardner pasted on the inside of the plywood luggage.
The women in the pin-up photographs are legendary and went on to become major stars, including Dorothy Lamour, Rita Hayworth and Heddy Lamar. Amick said the pin-up industry was informally sanctioned by the military brass and even Yank Magazine and Stars and Stripes carried pin-ups. He said at the beginning of the war the pin-ups were actually sleazier than they were later in the war, when they were toned down to present a different image back home and as the war manned up.
Later, pin-ups would be transformed on the pages of men’s magazines such as Playboy, which Amick subtly weaves into his new book. They also began to become the backbone of a much seedier business as they were exported from Times Square to middle America.
Amick said he had no intention of writing this book. He had another manuscript at a publisher and since his wife was expecting and his father-in-law had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, he had put his writing on hold. (He dedicated the book to his father-in-law, Don Burau.)
But the book did get written. As fate would have it, that pin-up girl motioned Amick to come hither, and he began writing the book in January 2007. He figured he would write about the pin-up girl and place her in Chicago and he would be able to talk with his dying father-in-law about that era and pin-up girls, which generally sounds more interesting than “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
Locals will appreciate Amick’s weaving in an important Ann Arbor connection. But Amick is careful to tell you that, too, is an accident. While wondering what camera Wink would use to shoot pin-ups, it dawned on Amick that it should be an Argus, once made right here in Ann Arbor. A reception following the signing was appropriately held in the old Argus building on William and Fourth, where a collection of old Argus cameras and memorabilia hold forth.
In his discussions about the book, Amick leaves the reason for the trip to Ann Arbor a little vague to avoid a spoiler, but let’s just say that the scenes shift to Ann Arbor after the war, when the pin-up industry begins to evolve into something less than innocent. Amick told the book-signing audience that he enjoyed writing the Ann Arbor segment, especially “about the things that aren’t here.”
When asked how much research he did on the novel, he said, “I tried to write things that I knew and were safe. It’s factual, not fact heavy.”
He also told the audience he didn’t know who the model for the cover is, saying, “It’s no woman I’ve ever seen – at least not in that state.”
One woman in the audience was especially intrigued by the book. Doris Strite of Ann Arbor was there to hear Amick and get her book signed. She said she worked at Argus from 1940-46.
“I took care of the sales department,” she said. Stite said she is looking forward to reading the book. “It was great – great working there.” She met her husband in the parts department at Argus.
By the way, Amick was not only signing his books but also making rough sketches of Argus C-3s or half-naked women.
Amick has done a wonderful job in his second book of mixing a tender love story against the atmospheric backdrop of WWII. He shows a nation of mourning also quixotically dancing in the streets as the war ends, wondering what it will do next. And his descriptions of the Chicago home front will leave you yearning for a noisy stop in Berghoff’s.
The author said he wrote the novel prior to the nation’s current financial crisis, but the undercurrent he has captured about survival, moving on and an unknown future has caught the attention of reviewers, who see it as a metaphor for what we must do to survive difficult times. Amick’s book seems to suggest that The Greatest Generation is still showing us the way.
Amick said at the reception that his book will soon be reviewed in the New York Times and People magazine.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going online to look for one of those pin-ups.
About the author: Bill Castanier is a literary journalist who shares his time between Ann Arbor and Lansing. He writes a weekly literary review for the Lansing City Pulse and co-authors with his son Ben www.mittenlit.com, a daily litblog on Michigan authors and books about Michigan. He is a board member of the Kerrytown BookFest and is also a member of the Michigan Notable Books selection committee. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.