Unless you are part of a select group with some specialized knowledge, you might find it hard to believe that Ann Arbor was once known for making cameras. But, yes, the Argus Camera Company made cameras here. The Argus Buildings at Fourth and West William streets are an easy walk from downtown and are now home to Michigan Radio, among other organizations. Argus manufactured cameras there until 1962. For a generation, its most popular product was America’s best-selling thirty-five-millimeter camera.
Local writer Steve Amick has found inspiration there for his second novel, Nothing but a Smile, a historical novel set mostly in Chicago at the end of World War II. Wink Dutton is a re-turning veteran, a budding cartoonist who lost the use of his drawing hand in a stupid accident onboard a submarine. Having no idea how he will make a living now that his one talent has been rendered useless, he visits a war buddy’s wife who is running her family’s camera shop in Chicago’s Loop.
Wink finds a way to help Sal with the business, and he soon discovers that to make ends meet she has been taking pinup pictures of herself. These were the “girlies,” very soft-core porn shots popular with GIs, the kind that suggested a lot more information than they ever dared to show. When Sal’s husband dies on his way home after the war, the two titillators get married. Wink and Sal are hardworking, lovable characters who simply seem to be free of much of the noisy prudery of their time. Most of the novel is a celebration of that sense of freedom.
Of course, working out on the fringe of what’s legal brings them into contact with some less savory types. Although there’s a lovely cameo appearance by a young man who may indeed be Hugh Hefner, other characters are not quite so pleasant. Just as Wink is developing into a photographer of note, they are forced to leave Chicago. They end up here, in Ann Arbor, drawn as much by the presence of Argus as by any sense of college-town insular safety: “The bright masonry of the Argus Camera Company headquarters suddenly appeared before them as if plunked down amid the elms and maples.” They begin a new life.
Steve Amick, who reads from his new novel at Nicola’s Books on Tuesday, March 10, has done a memorable job creating a time, a place, and an occupation while succeeding at making his readers care deeply about the good people involved in it all. Nothing but a Smile is a serious novel that leaves its readers with a sense that they have remembered, fondly, a time they probably never knew.