Pals, pinups, and the picture of propriety

Steve Amick builds his story around a WWII veteran. Steve Amick builds his story around a WWII veteran. (Sharyl burau)
By Judy Budz
Globe Correspondent / April 17, 2009
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The smiling, buxom beauty on the cover of "Nothing But a Smile" provides a visual clue to the plot of Steve Amick's new novel, which is itself a colorized and romanticized exploration of the reason why nice girls shed their clothes to pose for "girlie" magazines during and shortly after World War II. The novel suggests that these women may indeed be "cultural icons," but their innocence makes them no match for corrupt policemen, local gangsters, or the approaching hysteria of McCarthyism.

Still, at its heart, this novel is really a love story. It features Wink Dutton, an Army illustrator discharged in 1944 after permanently maiming his drawing hand in a foolish accident. Wink stops in Chicago to look for work. His Army buddy, Chesty, a photographer still in the Pacific, has asked Wink to "check in" on his wife, Sal.

Wink's friendship with Sal starts sweetly. When he meets her, she is barely hanging on to her family's camera shop. She owes money to her dark-room suppliers and the city's tax collectors; at night, the downtown neighborhood where she lives above her shop is threatened by young hoodlums. Frightened and broke, Sal invites Wink to move into her dead father's apartment above the shop, but first she asks Chesty for permission to live in such close proximity to a single man. From the Pacific, Chesty writes that the move is "aces w/me." Wink's luck improves, too, when he begins work at an advertising agency. Coincidently, Sal's good friend, Reenie, is a junior art director. Soon Wink and Reenie are dating.

The novel firmly establishes Wink as an all-around 1940s good guy. He enjoys a "good stiff belt," but resists his natural pull toward his friend's wife. He uses words like "lollygagging" and is happy to be "laughing it up with two great, spunky women." He heroically sacrifices his job to defend Reenie against the advances of her lecherous boss. Establishing Sal's innocence is a little harder. She has begun experimenting with a new income stream, posing for girlie photos which she takes herself, using a "timer gizmo" of her husband's devising. When Wink finds the photos, Sal pledges him to secrecy. She explains that she will never "cheat" on Chesty, but she will "lie" to him since if he knows about their financial condition, he will worry. Wink joins the enterprise, and Reenie soon signs on, too. There is no need to hire outside models, since Sal is "well endowed," and Reenie looks like a pinup.

The rest of the novel combines the elements of romance with an analysis of pinup art and a primer on pre-digital photography. The romance plot is teasingly slow. Sal desperately misses Chesty while he is alive and desperately mourns him when he dies. Wink photographs Sal naked, but honors her dignity by averting his eyes; instead he dates the fickle Reenie. Sal teaches Wink about shutter speed, and Wink teaches Sal about the golden ratio of visual composition. Along with the adventurous Reenie, they perfect the "peek-a-boo" photo, based on the notion that a "simple, partially obstructed view" of the female body is more enticing than full-out nudity.

We root for Sal and Wink to make money and acknowledge their love, even as postwar American taste is demanding more revealing photos which a "hatchet-faced young guy named Hef" will eventually provide. In the end, however, these changes do not matter much to the reader, who cares far more about hearts and flowers than about cheesecake.

Judy Budz is a professor of English at Fitchburg State College.


By Steve Amick

Pantheon, 320 pp. $24.95