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Feature Wed Jun 18 2008
Free Burning, the second novel by local author Bayo Ojikutu, is the July 2008 selection of the Gapers Block Book Club. It was first published in 2006 and takes place on Chicago's South Side in the fictional Four Corners neighborhood, which roughly translates to the South Shore area. Four Corners is beleaguered by poverty, gangs and drugs, among a host of other social and economic problems.
The protagonist is Tommie Simms, who, as the book's jacket copy declares, "was supposed to be the community's hope, the young man from the neighborhood who made good." Simms went to college and graduated from Southern Illinois University. He landed a corporate job with Global Mutual IndemCorp, a downtown insurance firm, with an office on the 32nd floor. But Simms is laid off from his job after 9/11, and he becomes desperate for a way to support his wife, Tarsha, and their baby daughter. He turns to his drug-dealing cousin Remi and begins selling pot to help pay the bills and make ends meet. The novel focuses on his quick descent into Chicago's underworld, as Simms finds himself on the wrong side of a crooked cop and crosses paths with loan sharks, rival drug dealers and others looking to get a piece of him. Ojikutu reveals how easy it is for a good man to fall on hard times, and how difficult it is to escape and climb back out of the hole.
Library Journal said, "Ojikutu's harsh and often violent depiction of the street life, where everyone has developed his or her own hustle to get by, is riveting." And Kirkus gave Free Burning a starred review, calling the story gritty, lyrical and intense, and describing Ojikutu's writing style as "a cross between James Baldwin's soulful song and the nightmare poetry of Louis-Ferdinand Cline." And in Black Issues Book Review, Denolyn Carroll summed up the novel as "a powerful work of urban fiction."
About the Author
Bayo Ojikutu was born in 1971 and is a Chicago native, born and raised. His father, Owolabi, is from Nigeria, and his mother originally hails from Louisiana. Ojikutu attended the University of Illinois, and earned his master's at DePaul University. He still lives in the city and teaches in the English department at DePaul. His first novel, 47th Street Black, published in 2003, was a winner of the Washington Prize for Fiction and the great American Book Contest. Ojikutu is definitely a local author to watch, as his star continues to rise.
Read an interview with Ojikutu from the Fall 2006 books issue of the Chicago Reader.
Read the book, and then join us on Monday, July 14, at The Book Cellar, beginning at 7:30pm for our discussion. New members are always welcome.