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Nothing But a Smile

Nothing But a Smile

4.4 7
by Steve Amick

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In his utterly charming story of a World War II veteran and an enterprising pinup girl, Steve Amick has created a beautifully understated love letter to an America of harder times and simpler choices.

It's 1944, and Wink Dutton, a former illustrator for Yank and Stars and Stripes, arrives in Chicago after an injury to his drawing hand gets him


In his utterly charming story of a World War II veteran and an enterprising pinup girl, Steve Amick has created a beautifully understated love letter to an America of harder times and simpler choices.

It's 1944, and Wink Dutton, a former illustrator for Yank and Stars and Stripes, arrives in Chicago after an injury to his drawing hand gets him discharged. Renting a room above the camera shop run by Sal Chesterton—the wife of Wink's buddy, still stationed in the Philippines—Wink is surprised to learn how Sal is making ends meet: producing pinup photos for the soldiers' girlie magazines. In fact, she's using herself as a model. When Wink becomes a partner in her covert enterprise, it's the beginning of a collaboration that is both wonderfully sexy and pure, one that not only leads to Wink’s reinvention as a photographer but also—amid the painful adjustments of the postwar world—blossoms into a subtle and unexpected romance.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Amick's solid follow-up to The Lake, the River & the Other Lake gives the reader a remarkable portrait of postwar America. When Wink Dutton is discharged from the army in 1944, he has little to his name besides his Purple Heart. His prospects change unexpectedly, however, when he meets Sal Chesterton, who has been running her family's camera shop while her husband serves in the Pacific. With business struggling, Sal comes up with a plan: she shoots sexy self-portraits and sells them to girlie magazines. As Sal and Wink's friendship develops, she lets him in on the venture, and the pinup business keeps them afloat and provides an easy segue to a complex romance after Sal's husband is killed in combat. The backdrop is captivating in its detail, and bold in scope: Sal and Wink's story plays out against wartime struggles, the Chicago underworld of the '40s and '50s, HUAC and the Red Scare and the postwar migration of Americans from the cities to the suburbs. This divine love story is as much about Sal and Wink as it is about America in that era-a great story, well told. (Mar.)

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Library Journal

World War II-era expressions and details about how Americans made it through tough economic times form an authentic backdrop for Amick's (The Lake, the River & the Other Lake) unusual story about how some amateurs get involved in creating risqué photos for early girlie magazines in 1940s Chicago. The tale centers on returning vet Wink Dutton, a former illustrator who injured his drawing hand in a freak shipboard accident, and Sal Chesterton, whose husband is serving in the Philippines. Together with Sal's friend Reenie, they earn much-needed cash by making photos that grow more and more revealing. The ingenuity involved in making these pictures generates much of this novel's charm; less interesting is the predictable romance between Sal and Wink. And Amick throws in a bit too much as the novel nears its end-the House Un-American Activities Committee, a local mafia, the Pulitzer Prize, and even Hugh Hefner. Overall, though, this is a satisfying slice of lesser-known Americana. Recommended.
—Evelyn Beck

Kirkus Reviews
Jimmy Stewart and Ann Sheridan might have been the protagonists of this goofy postwar romance, the successor to Michigan resident Amick's debut novel The Lake, the River, and the Other Lake (2005). The book is framed by a brief "Prologue" and "Epilogue," in which an elderly widow named Sal, en route to a nursing home, watches with amusement as family members stumble onto an arresting surprise stored in her attic. We're then treated to a leisurely, very funny account of the partnership formed by Sal, immediately following World War II, with her Army officer husband "Chesty" Chesterton's comrade Winton "Wink" Dutton, a promising cartoonist and illustrator (albeit burdened with a crippled right hand). Wink, discharged, has journeyed to Chicago to look in on Chesty's young wife Sal, who's trying to keep their family's business-a failing camera shop-alive. Upon renting a room from Sal, Wink learns she's been augmenting the family income by posing as a pinup girl-and, when Chesty's anticipated return home does not occur, the two join forces to create a thriving cottage industry. With the collusion of Sal's equally bosomy gal pal Reenie, they create visual delights for the pleasure of horny GIs everywhere, and everything seems swell-until the subject of an unauthorized photo brings trouble; censors harass the hapless "pornographers"; and the well-meaning innocents flee to Wink's hometown and the muted promise of a new life. The novel is fun throughout, if a tad redundant, and will remind many of the small-town fictional delights offered by Garrison Keillor and Eric Kraft. Amick has a gift for creating atmospheres that are both comic and oddly threatening, and he's adept at layering in niftyreferences to the period's pop culture. A charmer. Even the little old lady from Dubuque will like this one. Agent: Joe Veltre/Artists Literary Group
From the Publisher
“Playful… Sweet…. A novel with all the happy gloss of a romantic comedy.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Amick’s expertly crafted novel combines an unusual love story with an intriguing, atmospheric peek into the American graphic-art world in the 1940s.”  —People

“Pitch-perfect. . . . Amick gives us something increasingly rare—a love story with heart.” —Associated Press
 “A quirky, touching, and at times refreshingly masculine valentine. As [Amick] immerses us richly and authentically in an era essential to the formation of our national identity, he offers . . . a reminder, when we need it most, of why America remains a country with a vast potential for greatness.” —Julia Glass, author of Three Junes

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

On a warm June day in 1944, Wink Dutton, known most recently to the U.S. Army as Staff Sergeant Winton S. Dutton, special correspondent and burgeoning cartoonist and illustrator, stepped out onto the streets of Chicago in his civvies. In his pocket, he had seventeen dollars, the address of his buddy’s camera shop, a short list of publishers and advertising agencies, and the Purple Heart awarded to him for misunderstanding an ensign’s instructions regarding a flywheel aboard a sub he was supposed to be working up a piece on for the pages of Yank magazine.

The ensign had probably told him more than clearly to “Keep your finger out of this here,” but given the effects of a bottle of peach brandy the night before—a gift from a grateful quartermaster colonel for the boldly rugged rendering he’d done of him to accompany an article about fruitcake distribution and Christmas morale—the submarine tour seemed more like a cacophony of alarms, whistles, bells, and bellowing. He couldn’t think of a worse post-brandy story than, possibly, covering a riveter’s competition at a shipyard. Between the banging in his head and the banging in the tin can that was the USS _____________ (name censored for military secrecy), the only message he was able to receive was “Be sure to touch this flywheel I’m pointing to.”

He didn’t actually lose the hand, just proper use of the middle finger down to the pinky, plus the tip of the middle finger, right where he rested his pencils, pens, and paintbrushes.

“It’s the fuck finger and then some,” the navy doctor informed him. “You can still pinch, of course.”

“Great,” he’d told him. “I’ll put in for a transfer to the Pinching Brigade. I’ll get right on that.”

Before Wink shipped out of Townsville, Queensland, Sergeant Bill Chesterton, known to his fellow correspondents and poker players as Chesty, stopped by to say good-bye and good luck—and since Wink was planning on heading to Chicago, could he check in on his wife, Sal, and tell her he loved her still and was still being true?

“Absolutely,” he told him, and resisted horsing around with any cheap jokes—offering to do more than that for him or doubt the man’s statement of fidelity. It was the sort of thing guys did, the way they kidded, but personally, he thought it was a little too mean and a little too easy. And a little too close to the sort of demoralizing crap guys could hear plenty just by dialing in Tokyo Rose on the radio.

Besides, he counted himself lucky for having no such serious attachments—either back in the States or in the Pacific theater—and it was only this luck, he knew, that kept him from being such a vulnerable, miserable, hang-faced slob.

He made four stabs at the job search that first day in Chicago. All three interviewers were respectful and very complimentary of his portfolio. The two that seemed at least on the ball enough to assess his new situation—that he wouldn’t be able to illustrate or cartoon anymore and that the third thing he did marginally well, writing copy, was also limited as he had yet to relearn how to write with the other hand, and it left his typing appallingly more hunt-and-peck—nevertheless agreed that he would still make a great art director. Unfortunately, neither one currently had any art director positions available. At one of the four stops, an ad agency that was doing a lot of promotional poster work for the bond drive, he was told they might be needing a new stock boy in the art department soon, but that wouldn’t happen for another month and only if the husband of the girl currently holding the job got shipped stateside, in which case they imagined she would most likely want to quit work and return to taking care of her home. It hardly sounded like a sure thing.

And say it worked out—what was the jackpot? Counting gum erasers and reordering Berol pads in a windowless supply room? Filling out endless ration forms just to order the stuff? Bearing the abuse and demands of actual illustrators and art directors, whose job he should have? Fun.

No, at this rate, he was likely going to have to head home to Michigan, maybe help out at his uncle’s farm in St. Johns till he could retrain himself as a lefty.

So it was with a sense of defeat and lean prospects that he sought out a room at a walk-up hotel he’d gotten off a list from the VA. Jobs aside, he didn’t even feel that upbeat about the chance of scrounging a good meal. It was almost five. Chow time wasn’t that far off, and checking in had already put him down another buck fifty.

After hanging his one extra shirt on the hook on his door, he lay back on the clangy little bed—no worse than Government Issue, but he’d grown used to the nonreg hammocks and hooch pads of the South Pacific. He tried to lie cadaver straight, not wanting to wrinkle his suit for the job hunt ahead, and stared out the window at a billboard across the street. Of course, it was imploring him to buy U.S. bonds.

“Sure thing, Unc,” he said to himself. “First nickel I earn.”

He wished he at least had a book to read. Maybe, with a book, he could distract himself enough to stay in the room all night and skip going out and wasting what little coin he had in his pocket tying one on. Maybe if it were a really engaging read, he could manage to distract himself enough to skip dinner, too.

Already he was thinking what places there were to eat around the hotel and how much it would put him out.

He realized then that he was on Adams. Chesty’s camera shop was on Adams, the number not far off from his hotel address. He figured he might as well go look up the guy’s wife and check that errand off the list.


She’d been keeping it from Chesty, but the camera shop just wasn’t making it. It hadn’t done well before Pearl, during the Depression, but with the war on now, folks’ loose money had other practical purposes than camera equipment or even getting film developed. Occasionally, someone brought in their old Brownie to be repaired, and there were ardent hobbyists who simply had to splurge, but for the most part, the shop was a leaky boat, losing money every month her husband had been away.

Sal tried to make up the difference as best she could moonlighting at the Trib as a darkroom tech. She’d spoken to an editor about picking up an assignment as a photographer. He was an admirer of Chesty’s and so wasn’t overtly rude about it, but did say, “We’re not quite there yet, Sal.”

He offered to put in a word for her in the secretarial pool, but she told him she couldn’t type. It wasn’t true—she’d earned A’s in typing class two straight years in high school—but it  hadn’t come down to being a secretary yet. Doing that would mean full-time, daytime hours, hence closing the shop. We’re not quite there yet, she thought.

One of the other possibilities she hadn’t fully explored was something she found in the back of the photography magazines they sold at the shop—small ads, phrased with discretion, asking for girlie photos. Typically, they said things like:

$$$ paid for QUALITY pics
With Male Appeal
Life Study • Naturist • Sun Worship
For publishing/mass market
Very Reasonable Offers

She’d gone as far as writing a few of them—queries only, with only two or three photos enclosed—asking for a little more guidance in terms of subject matter.

She thought she had a pretty good idea what they were driving at.

The photos she enclosed she shot herself, as samples. To make sure they didn’t just steal them and reproduce them—though it would be hard to do, grainy and raw looking, shooting from the print, not the negative—she’d further stymied them in any potential attempt to steal the shots by running a big X across the face in each with a grease pencil.

The face, of course, was her face. She’d decided to pose for these practice shots herself, using a timer gizmo of her husband’s own devising. No sense going to the trouble of hunting up subjects and shelling out a modeling fee for something she wasn’t sure could even turn a profit.

In the first, she was standing behind a wingback chair, her breasts resting on the back of it, peeking over the top. She didn’t enjoy the look of her large nipples in that one. They seemed to be staring back at the camera like the wide eyes of an owl.

The second was her sitting in the chair, legs tucked up under her chin, her arms wrapped around the whole business, hiding her goodies as best she could. Expressionwise, she’d been trying for coy and coquettish, but she looked, she thought, more like she had some sort of intestinal issues, maybe an ulcer or just really bad heartburn.

The third, she just lay on her tummy on a towel on the floor, at a right angle to the camera, her chin propped up on her hands, her head tipped slightly in the direction of the tripod. To her, her grin seemed pasted on, but it was x-ed out, anyway, and besides, these were just test shots.

After practicing a manlier hand, she signed the queries S. Dean Chesterton. It was her name, after all—Dean was her maiden name—but she wasn’t surprised when one of the replies began with Dear Dean.

Two things did surprise her: they offered up no criticism of her composition and lighting. She knew she didn’t have Chesty’s eye, but they’d failed to mention these flaws. And the second surprise was she’d shown too much skin:

Today’s wartime pinups are running a tad more conservative, Dean. Ease up on the flesh.

We want to show the boys in uniform what they’re fighting for, but the USO does not like dispensing anything that might get them thinking the girls back home are too sexed up & easy & begging for it.

More girl-next-door brunette is big right now—less blonde bombshell. Long leg shots. Think mild distraction, Dean. (Just enough to get the boys hot, not enough to get them worried and going AWOL!)

And speaking of uniforms, may we suggest that’s a great way to dress up your model. Half a sailor’s tunic, maybe an aviator’s cap, cocked at a flirty angle. Get the girls saluting, waving flags, straddling cannons—that sort of thing.

Another, hand scribbled, just said:

Think “home fires burning,” Mac—not “my pussy’s on fire.” Maybe next time.

This last had Sal a little taken aback—no one had ever used that word in addressing her before. Even if it was only written and not spoken out loud, it was a little jarring. Besides, she hadn’t shown her pussy, for Pete’s sake. Merely her bottom and her legs and her bosom, especially in that one that came off as an owl impression.

All the responses said the grease pencil Xs were unnecessary, that they were legitimate brokers and not in the business of using any photographer’s work without legal authority and complete monetary compensation.

Legitimate, she thought. Right.

She’d have to give it a little more consideration before proceeding.

Meet the Author

Steve Amick is the author of The Lake, the River & the Other Lake. Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he received a BA from St. Lawrence University and an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University. His short stories have appeared in Playboy, The Southern Review, New England Review, Story, McSweeney’s, in the anthology The Sound of Writing, and on National Public Radio. On walks with his wife and young son, he often passes the original Argus Camera building.

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Nothing But a Smile 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a beautiful story! I was a kid in the 50's and these characters were very real to me. The author captures the period beautifully, especially with respect to attitudes toward sex and the impact of the McCarthy era on normal people. So well done! It is impossible not to love these characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My initial interest in Steve Amick's Nothing But A Smile was merely for the combination of the post-war era setting mixed with the alluringness of the pin-up girl lifestyle and less for the love story I suspected I would not be as interested in. However, by the time I got to the second chapter, I was completely entranced by the whole world of the characters and their story. Though a fairly straightforward tale of an (mostly) innocent struggle to keep a business afloat, it only leads the reader through a few predictable moments, easily forgiven and forgotten. The romance that emerges between Wink and Sal as they propel themselves into the world of creating "girlies" is as pure and sensational as Amick's writing is beautiful and boldly true to human nature. Nothing But A Smile leaves you feeling less like you've been reading a book for hours and more as though you've been sitting in Wink and Sal's living room as they giggle and blush over letting you in on the secret side of their day-to-day lives. I couldn't put it down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Jack-XK More than 1 year ago
Nothing But A Smile fleshes out one titillating possible answer to what might be the genuine feelings hidden behind the frozen expressions of our grandparents' (or even parents') painfully formal black and white wedding photos. Lovers of, "The Bridges of Madison County," will recognize this story's familiar framework. But Amick plumbs a much deeper vein, mining details that evoke an era when the effort necessary for work and pleasure seemed far more hands-on and heartfelt than in today's digital age. And rather than charging toward an over-inflated modern Hollywood ending, Nothing But A Smile coasts to wholly satisfying final chapter.
TattooedCricket More than 1 year ago
I came across this book on a search for "pin-up fiction" and found it to be the only one of its kind. I have a soft-spot for WW2 era pin-up art as well as other pop-culture associations with that time in history, so for me it was a highly entertaining read. The author craftily wrote the famous Gil Elvgren into the story, and even includes (what I'm pretty sure was) a quick nod to Hugh Hefner. The pop-culture references and slang used by the characters seem accurate for the time. I think many of the characters and some of the plot lines had room for expansion, but that may just be because I was so interested in the characters, I wanted to know more. It is a sweet, fun novel that although includes the downs of life, doesn't get bogged down by them. Perhaps part of the charm is the way Wink and Sal overcome the speed bumps they run across. Definitely worth the read, and I'll be hanging on to my copy.