In Steve Amick’s new novel, desire is most effectively stoked by what you can’t see.
What do you see when you look at a pinup girl?
As a kid who’d just been given my first Playboy by my brother-in-law, I would have answered that question in strictly anatomical fashion. I remember being drawn to the promise of seeing things I hadn’t seen before. But oddly enough, the most alluring shot in that issue-the only one I remember now, honest-was a woman wearing a white dress shirt, a few buttons open at the top but revealing nothing, her hand on her head to keep a pile of blond curls from spilling down. Everything I thought I wanted to see was hidden. It could’ve been an ad for cologne in Sports Illustrated, a billboard for vodka in Times Square. Put a glass in her other hand, and it could’ve said “Got Milk?”
In Nothing but a Smile, his kinetic and clever slice of 1940s American cheesecake, Steve Amick operates on the guiding principle that desire is most effectively stoked by what you can’t see. Skillfully playing against wholesome tropes like Norman Rockwell and Rosie the Riveter, he tells us that everything we know is not wrong, but some of it is a little dirty.
During World War II, Army cartoonist Wink Dutton is discharged with a Purple Heart and a mangled hand, souvenirs of late-night drinking and a killer hangover. His career as an illustrator all but destroyed, he struggles to try to find his niche in the Chicago commercial art scene. As a personal favor, he swings through the Loop to check up on Sal Chesterton, the wife of one of his buddies still stuck in the Pacific. Sal’s in dire straits, too. The camera shop her family has owned and operated for twenty years has seen its wartime business plummet. She decides to take what she does have-ingenuity, photography know-how, and a busty figure-and produce a few pinup shots for quick cash. Soon, she shows him the pics for his professional opinion, surprised to find herself not embarrassed so much as intrigued by the possibility of combining her technical expertise with his artistic eye. They become friends, and Wink eventually rents a room in Sal’s apartment over her family’s camera shop, mores and neighbors be damned.
Amick is smart to keep Wink and Sal together, at work and at home and at play-their chemistry is undeniable. Sal is capable, charming, and so earnest in her business pursuit that it’s impossible to read her as objectified or hyper-sexualized. (In fact, she’s comforted by the thought that, thousands of miles away, her husband might take some pleasure in seeing a shot of her “playing it up for him, batting her eyes, sticking out her can, whatever.”) While Wink, frustrated by his injury, is sometimes driven to commit minor acts of property damage, he’s otherwise unflappable and as adept with a sarcastic crack as he is with a bottle of gin. Even when Sal catches him masturbating, he coolly says, “Obviously, I was waxing the dolphin.”
The novel’s chapters flip nimbly between Wink and Sal’s points of view, quick as an Argus shutter. The switches let Amick play the professional partnership for laughs-Wink critiques a girlie picture without knowing Sal is the girlie-but also give him control over the complexities of the relationship. The phantom presence of Sal’s husband starts to wear on them both, as does loneliness, and knowing what they can’t have only enhances their desire. “What,” Sal wonders, “did a person have to do around here to just smell a good-looking man once in a blue moon?”
Amick, author of 2005’s The Lake, the River & the Other Lake and a former full-time advertising pro, is keenly tuned to our grainy mental pictures of the era, its perceived cuteness and spunk. While we get healthy rations of plucky period detail-gotta love the since-dated slang terms like “peachy” and “jake”-he also introduces some discord. Bizarre and potentially embarrassing military deaths go uninvestigated and unreported. The girlie pictures eventually catch the eye of more than just GIs, as local kids start recognizing Sal on the street and a crooked boxing promoter comes after the trademark. Wink rapidly picks up on the techniques Sal teaches him, and puts them to more traditional use: during one of his first “assignments,” he snaps a shot of a war veteran that warrants first publication in the Chicago Tribune, then an apology a few days later, and then regular visits from shadowy federal agents who stink of early McCarthyism. The most welcome complication comes from Sal’s friend Reenie, a ballbuster who catches Wink’s eye and becomes a co-conspirator in the pinup game.
But conspiracy and titillation are really just set dressing. At its heart, Amick’s novel is a playful, affecting love story. During a typically bawdy photo shoot, laughter rings, “through the camera shop, carrying out into the dark street, along with the music [Wink] found on the radio-delicious, brassy, pre-Army Harry James-and he wouldn’t have been anywhere else on a bet.” Nothing but a Smile is about people who specialize in revealing just enough, but there’s no covering up their hearts.