(Reviewed by Poornima Apte DEC 11, 2007)
Barlowe Reed is a 40-year-old African-American living in a rental in the historic Old Fourth Ward in Atlanta. He works at a local printing shop, has a little over hundred dollars in his savings and sublets his place to nephew Tyrone who is out of jail on parole. Barlowe has a pet peeve he calls “Caesar”-it’s the government who from experience swallows up his tax dollars but takes hours to show up when help is really needed.
Barlowe, who himself made the move to Atlanta after trying to shake off a nasty childhood in the deep South, seems fairly reconciled if not necessarily content with his hand-to-mouth existence. Soon though he starts noticing gradual changes in his neighborhood. He acquires new neighbors, the Gilmores, and they are white. “Last he’d heard they’d vacated the cities and fled to the woods. He thought they were happy out there. Now it appeared they’d changed their minds,” McCall writes.
Sean and Sandy Gilmore move next door and while Sandy eagerly tries to reach out to Barlowe, he is quite convinced that true friendship cannot be forged. “Too much water under the bridge,” he points out to her. Sandy’s simple (to the point of being naïve) attempts to understand her neighbor endlessly frustrate Barlowe.
Slowly the neighborhood gets gentrified and Barlowe watches the old faithfuls disappear. The area mini mart gets converted to a latte café and even the church gets sold to accommodate more condos.
Although McCall traces the gradual, linear gentrification of Old Fourth Ward beautifully, Them is not really as much a story as it is a commentary. It emerges (some would even say expectedly) as a commentary on the gentrification process and on exactly how divergent the black and white paths of thinking can be and often are. But, because the book comes through as a commentary the comedic tones of some segments jar with the points the novel tries to make. The comedic situations in the book are many and are funny but they tend to diminish the seriousness of the points McCall wants to make. In other places the dialog and situations seem too predictably clichéd. For example, when Sandy and Sean Gilmore are first checking out the Old Fourth Ward as a possible neighborhood to buy a starter home, their real estate agent tells them: “Mr. Gilmore. We drive values. You know that. Is this a great country or what?” And the residents of the Ward get understandably riled up when a local newspaper congratulates a white community leader in the neighborhood for being a pioneer and helping “bring civilization to a wasteland on the brink.”
Them does have many strengths however. One is the perceptive way in which McCall shows the internal friction between the blacks in the neighborhood. When during a particular fractious meeting between the whites and the blacks in the neighborhood, Barlowe speaks up and says it has gone too far, he is later pronounced as having sided with “them.” Even nephew Tyrone doesn’t ease up. He insists Barlowe is defecting to the other side, “actin like you done gone Republican or somethin.”
The best parts in the book are when McCall sheds light on how differently blacks and whites view the world around them. When a white citizen who has newly moved in walks around the neighborhood with a petition to get bike lanes installed, he is puzzled at the blacks’ refusal to sign on. Or, in a touching scene, one afternoon Barlowe walks by a pottery studio and wonders why people would spend their time making pottery merely because it is therapeutic. “He wondered how people found space in their heads to indulge in the sheer pleasure of making a thing, especially if that thing was an item they could easily find at Kmart or Lowe’s,” McCall writes.
As the book progresses, the friction between the whites and the blacks gradually increases and things get worse for all residents alike. Toward the beginning of Them, Barlowe notices that many of the African Americans in the Old Fourth Ward “appeared deliriously relieved simply to have found a hell at least cooler than the ones they’d left behind.” A cooler hell. Unfortunately this doesn’t change much with the advent of Them. If anything, for the few blacks that are left behind, what finally remains might be a cooler hell but it is also an uncertain one.
- Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Them at Simon & Schuster
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Them (November 2007)
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- Reading Guide for Them
- LA Times review of Them
- CentreDaily review of Them
- Tri-City Herald review of Them
- Salon.com review of Them
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About the Author:
Nathan McCall was born in 1955 and grew up in Cavalier Manor section of Portsmouth, Virginia.
He is the author of the bestselling autobiography Makes Me Wanna Holler, the story of his troubled youth, his criminal career as a young man, his three-year prison sentence for armed robbery, and his struggles to put his life together after his release. After prison, McCall studied journalism at Norfolk State University. He reported for the Virginia Pilot-Ledger and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before moving the The Washington Post in 1989.
Since 1998, he teaches in the African-American Studies Department at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.