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Reviews Thu Sep 27 2007

Review: Hiding Out by Jonathan Messinger

Hiding Out
by Jonathan Messinger
(featherproof Books 2007)

There comes a time for every reader when some figure in the literary scene whose efforts you’ve come to like and respect produces their own first work of literature. Because you like this figure, you are excited for this publication, you feel compelled to read it and you are positive that you will like it. But there are times when you are let down, when that effort is not particularly inspired or original and, instead, skates on the success of those previous efforts. You may be disappointed with the work, but you will defend it and make excuses and say that it was a decent first attempt while secretly wishing you could have liked it better. This does, on occasion, happen, but I’m am happy and relieved to say that when it comes to Jonathan Messinger’s Hiding Out, this couldn’t be further from the case.

Having graduated from editor of to editor of the Books section of Time Out Chicago and with his work with The Dollar Store literary/comedy series, which he founded, and featherproof books, an independent local publisher, Jonathan Messinger has his hands more than full when it comes to participation in Chicago literature. For those familiar with his work, Hiding Out, Messinger’s first published collection of fictional short stories, comes with great anticipation. Small in size, but not lacking in originality or feeling, Hiding Out is filled to the brim, almost bursting out of its bound pages with stories of loneliness, of unrequited love, of the fear of aging, of curiosities and of mistakes in action, but above all these are stories full of those things that have felt true to all of us at some point in our lives.

It’s difficult to know exactly what the book’s title refers to. In the story for which it was named, Eamon Peterson is a lonely man who emails himself fake spam throughout the workday. When he enjoys a simple conversation with the female coworker in whom he maintains a shy interest, he makes up his mind to do something about it. Encouraged by email messages that he doesn’t quite remember writing himself, Eamon’s desires are quashed when he learns of the boyfriend that she, of course, already has. After learning that his boss, who attempts to prove his youth by jumping off his roof every birthday and claiming no injuries, was the one who sent the emails, Eamon agrees to exchange some company files with a client who desires to have his record cleaned. For the client, the transaction is nothing, but for Eamon, who has lived so for so long unnoticed on the sidelines, it is his chance to do something dangerous, out of the ordinary and just a little bit thrilling.

The phrase “hiding out” could easily refer to Eamon’s oft-ignored existence, but it could also refer to the protagonist of “True Hero,” a man who creates an elaborate costume to go to Halloween party where his ex-girlfriend will be, only to find that she’s moved on with a man who wears the male half of the costume they once created together. It could be the man in “You Never Forget,” a father who feels torn in chastising his son and his girlfriend for transgressions he felt justified to make in his own youth. It could be the teenager in “One Valve Opens,” who excels at school and is the star of his Poetry Slam Club, but who does not necessarily want his defining characteristic to be that that he is a black student living in the suburbs. It could be the unfortunate casual soccer player in “Bicycle Kick” whose life could either be altered completely or remain entirely the same with the discovery of inoperable twin aneurysms. All of these characters are hiding from something, if only from themselves, but it is their inability to do so that makes them so real.

At times funny yet wrenching, simple yet perfectly detailed, the stories in Hiding Out make us think about what it means when we try to be something we’re not and, conversely, when others perceive us to be something other than who we are. The illustrations that start each chapter (provided by Rob Funderburk) are a flawless complement to Messinger’s stories. They are amusing asides, but possess an almost desperate air to them – what, or who, are these figures trying to hide? The stories in Hiding Out may not provide answers to these questions, but they ask them with heart and with humor and with a sense of urgency, a feeling that these stories must be told. From the very first story, tucked neatly on the publisher’s page, to the last, secreted away underneath the book’s final description, the entirety of Hiding Out is an absorbing read. For a first-time author who could conceivably coast on his past merits, Messinger does not take the easy way out. He does not disappoint.

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