(Starred review.) The embattled characters who people McCall's trenchant, slyly humorous debut novel (following the 1994 memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler and a 1997 essay collection) can't escape gentrification, whether as victim or perpetrator. As he turns 40, Barlowe Reed, who is black, moves to buy the home he's long rented in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. His timing is bad: whites have taken note of the cheap, rehab-ready houses in the historically black neighborhood and, as Barlowe's elderly neighbor says to him, "They comin." Skyrocketing housing prices and the new neighbors' presumptuousness anger Barlowe, whose 20-something nephew is staying with him, and other longtime residents, who feel invaded and threatened. Battle lines are drawn, but when a white couple moves in next door to Barlowe, the results are surprising. Masterfully orchestrated and deeply disturbing illustrations of the depth of the racial divide play out behind the scrim of Barlowe's awkward attempts to have conversations in public with new white neighbor Sandy. McCall also beautifully weaves in the decades-long local struggle over King's legacy, including the moment when a candidate for King's church's open pulpit is rejected for "linguistic lapses... unbefitting of the crisp doctoral eloquence of Martin Luther King." McCall nails such details again and again, and the results, if less than hopeful, are poignant and grimly funny.
McCall (Makes Me Wanna Holler) follows up his autobiography with a first novel that focuses directly on the old Fourth Ward of Atlanta, the former home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Now the neighborhood is changing, as white couples find this the perfect place to resettle. The "gentrification" of the area begins next door to Barlowe Reed, an African American through whom McCall filters the anger, tensions, and sensibilities of the community. With his new neighbor Sandy and her husband, Sean, old grievances, beliefs, and hopes are explored and tested. McCall manages to make the characters fully genuine, and narrator Mirron Willis brings them quite expertly to life. Much more happens within the minds of these characters than in many more action-packed stories. Recommended.
Joyce Kessel - Library Journal
McCall, author of Makes Me Wanna Holler (1994), offers a sensitive look at the dynamics of gentrification. —Vanessa Bush.
From memoirist and journalist McCall (What's Going On: Personal Essays, 1997, etc.), a debut novel about an Atlanta neighborhood undergoing gentrification—or invasion, depending on your point of view. The Old Fourth Ward, birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., is a little run-down now that affluent blacks have been siphoned off to the integrated suburbs, but it's still a cozy African-American community that's tolerant of the old men who sit gabbing every day outside the Auburn Avenue Mini Mart, of the drunk couple often staggering along the sidewalks and of the homeless man always hustling for odd jobs. The Fourth suits Barlowe Reed, who dreams of buying the shabby house he rents at 1024 Randolph St., if he can just get a decent raise out of his cracker boss at the Copy Right Print Shop. It also appeals to Sean and Sandy Gilmore, part of an influx of whites drawn to the handsome old houses available "for the cost of a ham sandwich." Sean and Sandy want to be good neighbors; they can't understand why everyone regards them with hostility and suspicion. Readers will get it, as potholes neglected for years are filled in, police patrols appear out of nowhere to roust the drunks, and whites get elected to all the offices of the Fourth Ward Civic League, which promptly calls for an end to outdoor card-playing (so rowdy) and frontyard barbecues ("those hideous steel drums"). The tentative friendship between next-door neighbors Sandy and Barlowe doesn't stand a chance in this increasingly tense atmosphere as tires are slashed and fires started in the mailboxes of white-owned homes. McCall's characterizations are vivid rather than deep: With the exception of Sandy, all white folks are cluelessly arrogant, and among the somewhat more fully drawn African-Americans, only Barlowe has any real depth. The plot is similarly schematic; what matters here is McCall's painfully honest portrait of a nation racked by racial mistrust. Squirm-inducing, which surely was the author's intention.
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