McManus, James 1951-

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McManus, James 1951-

PERSONAL: Born March 22, 1951, in New York, NY; son of Kevin J. (a salesman) and Mary (a secretary; maiden name, Madden) McManus; married Susan Ro-manelli (a sculptor and painter), May 9, 1974 (divorced); married Jennifer Arra; children: Bridget, James. Education: University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, B.A., 1974, M.A., 1977.

ADDRESSES: Home—100 Central Ave., Wilmette, IL 60091. Office—The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 37 S. Wabash, Chicago, IL 60603.

CAREER: Writer, journalist, poet, columnist, and educator. School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, began as visiting assistant professor of liberal arts, 1981, currently professor of creative writing.

MEMBER: Associated Writing Programs, P.E.N.

AWARDS, HONORS: Grants from National Endowment for the Arts for poetry, 1979, and for prose, 1985; fiction awards from Illinois Arts Council, 1982, for "Picasso," 1983, for "Unclothed Singularities," 1984, for "Calypso and Charybdis," 1986, and 1987; Illinois Arts Council Literary Fellowship, 1985; Shifting Foundation Fellowship, 1988, for Chin Music; Arts International Travel Award, 1990; Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, 1994–95; Carl Sandburg Prize, 1996, for Going to the Sun; Bellagio Residency, Rockefeller Foundation, 1997; Society of Midland Authors Award, 1997, for Going to the Sun; Di Castagnola Award, Poetry Society of America, 1998, for Tunnel of Love; Peter Lisagor Award for Sports Journalism.



Out of the Blue, Crown (New York, NY), 1984.

Chin Music, Crown (New York, NY), 1985.

Ghost Waves, Grove (New York, NY), 1988.

Going to the Sun, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.


Antonio Salazar Is Dead (prose poems and short stories), Syncline (Chicago, IL), 1979.

Curtains: New and Selected Stories, Another Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1985.

Great America: Poems, HarperPerennial (New York, NY), 1993.

Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker (nonfiction), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2003.

Physical: An American Checkup (nonfiction), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to periodicals, including New Directions, Chicago, TriQuarterly, Zero One, B-City, and Another Chicago, and to newspapers.

Author of a column on poker for the New York Times.

SIDELIGHTS: A professor of creative writing, James McManus is best known for his novels that combine psychological insight with sometimes deliberately cryptic plots and characters. McManus's work "defies easy classification," commented Joyce Slater in Chicago's Tribune Books, and no two of his works are similar in mood, storyline, or design.

McManus's Out of the Blue, described by Susan Philipson in Chicago magazine as an "ingeniously plotted first novel," is the story of a kidnapping with a bizarre twist. Jack and Shelley Exley's five-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, is abducted when she is mistaken by kidnappers for the daughter of millionaire Burke Rawls, Jr. After realizing their mistake, the terrorists proceed with their ransom demands, even though they have the Exley's child.

Joyce Slater, writing in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, noted that McManus "has chosen an unconventional form" for his first novel. "There are no chapters, only brief entries ranging in length from a few sentences to a few pages." Even so, "Out of the Blue works amazingly well with just the bare bones of narrative," stated Norbert Blei in the Chicago Sun-Times. "Though one may question a serious writer's judgment as to why this type of work should represent his first novel," Blei added, "in the end the strength of the mystery, the beauty of the book rests in its style." Praising Out of the Blue in the Grand Rapids Press, Pauline Saltzman wrote: "For an author to convey so much suspense and emotional trauma through terse, understated writing—this is artistry."

"If, as Picasso said, art isn't truth but only the lie which makes us realize the truth given us to understand, then [McManus's second novel] Chin Music is a book of lies written for today," observed Jeffrey Farrell in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The story revolves around "Gamma" Ray Zajak, a star pitcher for the Chicago White Sox who gets knocked unconscious by an opposing pitcher's fastball during a World Series game in Chicago. When he finally comes out of his coma, Zajak, hospitalized and suffering from amnesia, learns that World War III has broken out. He then tries to find out his true identity, while his wife and son try to cope with the fact that they will never see Ray again. Meanwhile, the citizens of Chicago are in a state of hysteria brought on by the explosion of nuclear weapons.

In Chin Music "McManus toys with images meant to shock … shows some obliquely, shuffles others as though in a deck of cards and then flips them at the reader," commented Brent Staples in the New York Times Book Review. "He is clearly a talented writer, but his experiment seems naked and calls too much attention to itself." On the other hand, Mike Steere, writing in the Toledo Blade, stated that Chin Music "is short, but it deserves a long read. McManus … jams a great deal of meaning into few words" and the "final passages … are deeply moving."

Ghost Waves, McManus's third novel, applies the principles of physics to emotion and experience, simultaneously blurring the lines between reality and illusion, time present and time past. The novel centers on nineteen-year-old Linda Krajacik, through whose observations the novelist "effectively conveys the fragmented thoughts of a dysfunctional personality," Slater remarked in the Chicago Tribune Books. Linda struggles with her intense hatred for her mother's fiancée and her disturbing visions of her father, who was killed in Vietnam. According to Irving Malin in Review of Contemporary Fiction, McManus "offers us a novel in which transformations, unrealities, hallucinations are 'ordinary.' Many characters seem to travel at outer limits—or seek to master the conditions which envelop their lives—and they are never quite sure of their roles, occupations, objectives." Slater characterized Ghost Waves as "an intellectually challenging book that goes to the heart of our most basic and most comforting assumptions about the nature of reality." The reviewer concluded that the novel "also is a grim, unrelenting, cynical piece of work. You won't come away from it humming the tunes, that's for sure. But McManus's readers ought to admire the scope and daring of what he has tried to accomplish."

In Going to the Sun, the story revolves around a seriously diabetic graduate student named Penny Culligan, as she seeks to understand her boyfriend's violent death, her own perilous health, and her affinity for the works of Samuel Beckett, on whom she is preparing a dissertation. Faced with writer's block on her overdue dissertation, Penny decides to undertake a bike trip from Chicago to Alaska, where her former boyfriend was mauled by a bear. "Going to the Sun, James McManus's fourth novel, takes on the problem of pain," wrote Mark Baechtel in the Washington Post Book World. "And it seems … that the author is trying to conduct a more high-minded exploration of this well-traveled territory."

Most critics were impressed by what McManus has called the "new Jim"—a novel that is more accessible and straightforward in its narrative, if not less emotionally challenging in theme. "In a sense, Going to the Sun is a long, Americanized gloss on Beckett, with last lines that echo the conclusion of 'The Unnameable,'" maintained James Marcus in the New York Times Book Review. "This is a bold—even a reckless—move, since few novels can hold a candle to such an exalted model. But in Penny's brilliant, funny, and sometimes harrowing travelogue, Mr. McManus manages the comparison quite nicely. And that's about the highest compliment I can pay him." Washington Post Book World reviewer Peter Franck cited the novel for its "delicate balance between Penny's meditations and episodes on the road," concluding that McManus's "portrait of a gutsy lady dueling with death is both exhilarating and moving."

In addition to his novels, McManus has published several volumes of short stories and a poetry collection titled Great America: Poems. In the Hudson Review, Robert McDowell remarked that in Great America "we find ourselves in the company of a novelist-on-a-spree. In fact, rather than poetry Great America is really a Day Book, the things one jots down when not writing a novel, when building towards a new one." Publishers Weekly contributor Sybil S. Steinberg noted that the poems "juxtapose life from the tabloids against a poetic vision in which sense is apt to jitter into fragments as the attention focuses." In his Antioch Review piece on Great America, Daniel McGuinness suggested that McManus's poetry collection "joins those already piled high and handsome on heaven's streetcorner: Olson, Pound, Ginsberg, Lindsay, the great grief-stricken line of those with too much to say, for whom the page is not enough prison, with whom we suffer when we get home from work."

As a journalist and essayist, McManus is also the author of two nonfiction books, both based on his experiences in several different venues. In Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker, McManus chronicles his adventures as a player in the 2000 World Series of Poker, which he entered largely as a lark but which left him with almost a quarter-million dollars of winnings. The title is a poker-themed riff on a Bob Dylan song ("Positively Fourth Street") that refers to the final five cards turned over by the dealer during play. McManus tells how he was sent to Las Vegas by Harper's magazine to cover the 2000 World Series of Poker. Concurrently, McManus would be covering the murder trial of Sandy Murphy and her clandestine boyfriend Rick Tabish. Murphy, a former stripper, was the girlfriend of Ted Binion, host and son of the founder of the World Series of Poker, and she and Tabish were accused of Binion's brutal murder. Though McManus reveals the sordid story and ultimate outcome of the murder trial, his greater focus is on his participation in the poker game. To add some realism to his reporting, McManus decided to enter the game itself. A longtime player, McManus had some knowledge of the game and managed to take the 4,000 dollar magazine advance and, playing in a qualifying tournament, turn it into the 10,000 dollar entry fee for the World Series game of Texas Hold 'Em. He realized his odds were slim; coming out even near the top of the field of 512 players would be an incredible feat, especially for a low-stakes, nonprofessional player such as himself. In a dizzying series of events, McManus eventually finds himself sitting at the final table with the last of the competitors, top-notch players all. Enormous bets are made and gigantic pots of nearly a million dollars are lost before McManus exits the tournament in fifth place, a showing that earned him more than 270,000 dollars "and, even better for a writer, a great story," observed Robert R. Harris in the New York Times.

"McManus is an artful and often dazzling writer—dazzling sometimes to the point of obscurity—and in this book he weaves together five or six related story lines," noted Dan Seligman in Commentary. In addition to the story of the Binion murder trial and his participation in the poker tournament, he also covers areas such as the lives of the other poker players, the Las Vegas culture, the world of professional gamblers, and the sheer irony of a family man who minds his budget entering and playing a poker tournament where amounts equivalent to his yearly salary are won or lost on the turn of a single card. Sports Illustrated reviewer Daniel G. Habib called the book "a rich and raunchy memoir, a Las Vegas fable of no-limit action." A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that "the drama of high-stakes poker is inherently compelling—here is a rare opportunity to read an account by someone who can really write." A Kirkus Reviews critic named it a "heart-in-its-mouth card story: urgent, potent, and damn jolly." Seligman called McManus's work, simply, "a terrific story."

Physical: An American Checkup once again follows McManus through the rigors of an assignment for Harper's magazine, this time to experience the exquisitely thorough three-day "executive physical" offered by the Mayo Clinic. McManus, like many middle-aged men, admits that he does not get enough exercise, eats too much rich food, and enjoys the occasional puff of tobacco and splash of liquor. He is also overweight and comes from a family with a history of heart disease. His story "morphs into true confessions, political diatribes, and sundry other tidbits," noted a Kirkus Reviews critic. In the process, McManus offers cogent observations on topics such as how Americans—and Baby Boomers particularly—come to understand their own mortality, the glaring social and economic inequalities in healthcare in the United States, and the short-sighted, politically motivated governmental policies that impair research into stem cells and related modes of treatment that have the best chance of eradicating dozens of diseases. Physical is a "disjointed, sometimes uproarious, sometimes powerful book," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer.



Antioch Review, spring, 1994, Daniel McGuinness, review of Great America: Poems, p. 371.

Blade (Toledo, OH), September 1, 1985, Mike Steere, review of Chin Music.

Booklist, December 1, 2005, Donna Chavez, review of Physical: An American Checkup, p. 10.

Chicago, March, 1984, Susan Philipson, review of Out of the Blue, p. 173.

Choice, July-August, 1986, review of Curtains, p. 1677.

Christian Science Monitor, March 2, 1984, Ruth Doan McDougall, review of Out of the Blue, p. B9.

Commentary, September, 2003, Dan Seligman, review of Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker, p. 74.

Entertainment Weekly, February 23, 1996, Daneet Steffens, review of Going to the Sun, p. 118.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, September 22, 1985, Jeffrey Farrell, review of Chin Music.

Grand Rapids Press, March 4, 1984, Pauline Saltzman, review of Out of the Blue.

Houston Chronicle, May 9, 2003, Phil Kloer, "A Full House of Characters," review of Positively Fifth Street.

Hudson Review, spring, 1994, Robert McDowell, review of Great America, p. 157.

Journal and Constitution (Atlanta, GA), February 19, 1984, Joyce Slater, review of Out of the Blue.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2003, review of Positively Fifth Street, p. 212; November 1, 2005.

New York Times, April 13, 2003, Robert R. Harris, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," review of Positively Fifth Street.

New York Times Book Review, February 26, 1984, Caroline Seebohn, review of Out of the Blue, p. 22; September 8, 1985, Brent Staples, review of Chin Music, p. 24; June 4, 1989, Janet Kaye, review of Ghost Waves, p. 22; February 18, 1996, James Marcus, review of Going to the Sun, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly, March 21, 1986, review of Curtains, p. 82; June 7, 1993, review of Great America, p. 56; March 3, 2003, review of Positively Fifth Street, p. 62; October 17, 2005, review of Physical, p. 52.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1989, Irving Malin, review of Ghost Waves, p. 250.

Sports Illustrated, April 28, 2003, Daniel G. Habib, "A Royal Rush: The Author Penetrated the Dark Heart of America's Sin City to Discover the Thrill of Poker Victory," review of Positively Fifth Street, p. R3.

Sun-Times (Chicago, IL), February 26, 1984, Norbert Blei, review of Out of the Blue.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 30, 1988, Joyce Slater, review of Ghost Waves, p. 97; February 18, 1996, review of Going to the Sun, p. 5.

Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1984, Adam Gussow, review of Out of the Blue, p. 22.

Washington Post Book World, June 2, 1996, Mark Baechtel, review of Going to the Sun, p. 6; March 2, 1997, Peter Franck, review of Going to the Sun, p. 4.


Curled up with a Good Book, (March 4, 2006), Amanda Cuda, review of Positively Fifth Street.

John's Jottings, (June 21, 2003), review of Positively Fifth Street.

Pop Matters, (March 4, 2006), Adam H. Cook, review of Positively Fifth Street.

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McManus, James 1951-

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