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Books Tue Aug 27 2013
At first glance there's something sepia-toned about Following Tommy, the debut novel of former West Sider Bob Hartley. The photographs one imagines him working from could be hung on the walls of any old watering hole in town to add a whiff of authenticity. There's the working-class kid in a T-shirt on his front stoop with a paperback and a beer. There are the buttoned-up churchgoers passing by. There's the pretty girl behind the counter of a diner. And it's true that we don't get much more than snapshots of even the primary characters -- with the book barely breaching the hundred-page mark, there isn't time to go deep. The three boys at the center of the book can be pretty well summed up as the smart one, the mean one, and the dumb, fat one. Dad's a drunk holding onto his Irish accent and the memory of his dead wife. As for the women, they're sainted matriarchs, tough old broads, or friendly sexpots.
But if this vision of the Austin neighborhood in the early 1960s comes off as a little schematic, one quickly realizes that it is lit by no glow of nostalgia. This Chicago is violent, judgmental, and utterly driven by clout. Richard J. Daley's machine turns the gears of one major plotline, and its motions are omnipresent in the little details of voter fraud and straight-ticket loyalty to the alderman who kisses everyone's babies and sends envelopes of money to their weddings. At a crucial point, he also gets protagonist Jacky O'Day, his older brother Tommy, and his cousin Hippo out of jail.
The boys don't exactly deserve to be sprung loose. They really did rob that department store and break into that bar and accidentally poison that cop's dog. But they're set free because the ward is also intensely racist. The Austin neighborhood was 99.8% white in the 1960 census, but by the time the book's action rolls around, residents are as nervous about the block-busting techniques they've seen uproot other neighborhoods as they are about the actual prospect of having black neighbors. Enter the need for a few local thugs to keep things under control.
Whatever their deeper motives, most of the neighbors are happy to cheer on Tommy as he wages a campaign of harassment against the first black family to move in, fueled by dreams of joining the comfortably corrupt and winning a job that exists on paper and paycheck only. For Jacky, too, it feels good at first: for the first time since their mother died and their father lost his job, the boys are buoyed by the neighborhood and its political establishment. Suddenly, they begin to reap the full benefits of white privilege that had previously been blocked by their poverty and criminality.
But Jacky's moral compass hasn't been entirely smashed by his hard adolescence, and eventually, he makes moves to extract himself from Austin's manicured mean streets. We're not sure what life will hold for him at the end of the book; he's just barely better than his surroundings, and things might go okay or might not. For the neighborhood he's leaving, things will not be okay at all. Years of racial tension and decades of poverty await.
The Chicago Hartley writes about, it turns out, is my grandfather's Chicago. When I moved here as an adult, I was intrigued to learn of his connection to the city, eager to hear about the old days. Though he wasn't born here, it turned out he'd spent some time staying with friends and relatives as a young man -- mostly, I came to gather, on the Lithuanian South Side where white fear was driving the people he knew farther south and southwest. He has talked a little about that, and about the Maxwell Street Market that the O'Day boys visit to hawk their stolen goods; he has talked about these things in casually, appallingly racist terms. (I should note he is somewhat impaired by old age and poor health; he might otherwise be a better man, but he might not.)
It shocked me, but it shouldn't have. I was looking for some cool stories that would make me feel as though I had some insight into Chicago's authentic past. I got something authentic, all right, but it was nothing I could repeat to my friends. Nothing to celebrate.
Can I say, then, that Following Tommy is a good substitute for a racist grandpa? I don't mean that as an insult. I just mean that it leaves you with the same bracing and valuable realization: for outsiders of any stripe, the past has rarely been a hospitable neighborhood. If the book's prose occasionally seems a bit short on charm, that might well be an ethical, rather than an aesthetic, choice.