Christian Chiakulas may have graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 2010, but his alma mater lives on his imagination.
The 25-year-old's first full-length novel, the 129-page My Last Sunset — published earlier this year by Rogue Phoenix Press — is about a fictional suicide that takes place inside of the high school.
The book's plot centers on Damon Riley, the novel's protagonist, who is described in an Amazon summary of the novel as "an angry, antisocial teenager with a penchant for solving mysteries."
The mystery that sets him in motion is that of a suicide note left by his peer, Jessica Carpenter, who writes that he's one of the reasons why she killed herself in the girl's bathroom on the second floor of OPRF.
Chiakulas said he got his stylistic inspiration for the novel from the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Richard Price.
"I wanted to do a hard-boiled mystery set in a high school," Chiakulas said in a recent phone interview. "I set it at OPRF because I wanted a sense of realism and writing about the town I grew up in, and the place I went to school allowed me to do that with some honesty."
Both Chandler and Price owe some debt to another OPRF graduate and writer, who is such a presence around these parts that he hardly has to be named.
"Of course, Ernest Hemingway is a big influence on me in some ways," Chiakulas said. "I've obviously read him. I wouldn't say he's my absolute favorite writer, but his philosophy of being direct and concise, and using simple words so that his poetry comes more through meaning rather using superfluous language is something I try to emulate."
Chiakulas, who graduated in 2010, said his personal life at OPRF is echoed in the fictional Damon Riley.
"I was always kind of a loner and an outcast when I was at OPRF," said the author. "The way that Damon is treated and the way he looks at some of the other students there is probably an idealized version of my experience there."
Recently, Chiakulas has found the need to insert himself in the center of local politics. Earlier this year, he campaigned for a seat on the OPRF District 200 school board ahead of the April 4 elections before dropping out of the race due to a residency issue. He said he was forced by circumstances to move out of Oak Park, to nearby Elmhurst.
"At the time, there was a lot of frustration and anger with local government, in general, and the school board, in particular," said Chiakulas, who also writes for Huffington Post and has been active in the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Illinois Green Party, among other left-leaning political organizations.
"At the national level, Trump was elected and Betsy De Vos was going to be Secretary of Education. That got me worried about education," he said. "I had been for a long time. I worked as a teacher's aide at a charter school and I'd seen what charters and the privatization of education are doing to this country."
Although he wasn't convinced that he'd win, Chiakulas said that he at least wanted to "raise some important issues" during his campaign, like this point during offered during a candidate forum in January:
"We don't have an equity problem, we owe our students a debt in education that has not been paid for decades," he said at the time. "Instead of playing this game where we try to think of ways to help the underachieving students catch up, we need to be looking at ways we can come down to their level and bring all the students up together. It starts with these students. That requires courage, because it might mean some parents and students might need to make sacrifices."
Although politically active, Chiakulas said that his novel isn't a political statement.
"I don't delve too heavily [into social commentary] in the book, because I wanted it to be a good read for everybody above all else," he said.
And the novel may be just the first in a string of other books to come for the writer, who works in the marketing department for a real estate company by day and struggles to pump out more fiction in his spare time.
"I have longer manuscripts that I've written that I've devoted more attention to" he said.
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