Them (McCall)

Nathan McCall, 2007
Simon & Schuster
339 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781416549161

This combination fo superbly developed characters, a realistic story line, and descriptions that profoundly capture the essence of this country's urban experience—in black and white—is the formula for the making of this truly great American novel. (From the publisher.)

In Them, Nathan McCall, best known as a memoirist, has tried his hand at fiction with a timely tale of gentrification and its attendant misunderstandings. Set in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, Them traces the gradual yuppification of a historically black neighborhood and the explosive racial tensions that follow suit. At its center is the tentative relationship—never quite the friendship the novel would have you believe—that develops between resident paranoiac Barlowe Reed and the white armchair liberal who moves in next door.

McCall, to his credit, gives voice to a whole slew of viewpoints, whether the characters are nostalgic '60s civil rights activists struggling to adapt their tactics to a new plight or eager gentrifiers who are blind to why their gestures of civic pride fall short.... Still, Them meets its subject matter head on and gives a nervy glimpse of a community under siege. (Amelia Atlas, from Barnes & Noble.)

Author Bio
Nathan McCall, author of Makes Me Wanna Holler, has worked as a journalist for the Washington Post. Currently, he teaches in the African American Studies Department at Emory University and lives in Atlanta, Georgia. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
(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.
Publishers Weekly

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.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Discuss the book's title. What is its meaning? How is the word "them" used throughout the novel, and in what ways does its significance change?

2. This book is divided into three parts. Why do you think Nathan McCall chose this structure?

3. Though their differences are obvious, what characteristics do Sandy and Barlowe share? In spite of different worldviews that complicate their relationship, why do you think these two are ultimately able to bond?

4. "If Barlowe could have assembled the words that reflected his knowing, he might have said something like this: 'Between two people with perceptions shaped by realities as alien as ours, some things really are inscrutable; one person's truths can transcend another's language, rendering them utterly incapable of seeing eye to eye'" (p. 225). What does this mean? Do you agree?

5. Though the overarching conflict of the novel may be between the blacks and the whites who inhabit the Old Fourth Ward, some discord emerges within each race as well. In what instances do stereotypes inspire misunderstandings among residents of the same race?

6. Were you surprised to discover that Sean turned The Hawk in to the police? Do you think his action was justified?

7. Though Viola's official cause of death was liver failure, people in the neighborhood assumed she died of heartbreak after The Hawk mysteriously disappeared. Do you believe Sean is therefore implicated in Viola's death?

8. Contrast and compare how Sean and Barlowe each dealt with the occasional intrusions of Viola and The Hawk. Would you characterize Viola's death as a sad yet ultimately necessary result ofgentrification, or a needless tragedy set in motion when the neighborhood's balance is thrown off kilter?

9. Although Sean and Sandy are obviously not welcome in the neighborhood, and in spite of several dangerous personal attacks, Sandy resists Sean's pressure to leave the Old Fourth Ward. Do you think her resolve is admirable or foolish? Is she to blame for what happens to Sean in the novel's violent climax?

10. In what ways does the author make statements about black self-sufficiency?

11. The Gilmores ultimately leave the Old Fourth Ward. Were there any instances throughout the novel when you believed that they would establish a happy life there?

12. Though they didn't intend to make a negative impact on the neighborhood, the Gilmores, like other whites, certainly did. Were there ways in which their presence produced positive results?

13. Do you think that, in leaving the neighborhood, the Smiths helped resolve a personal dilemma? Did they inadvertently help advance the process of gentrification?

14. Throughout the novel, Barlowe struggles with the feeling of "not knowing how to live" (p. #83). What does this mean? Are there other characters who deal with similar internal conflict?

15. Discuss Barlowe's transformation throughout the novel. What events and relationships inspire changes in his feelings, reactions, and goals? What ultimately enables him to feel at peace with himself by the end of book?

16. The instances in the book that involve segregated meetings or gatherings among ward residents primarily result in each group's strengthened dedication to remaining segregated. Do you think those actions symbolize continued racial divisions in this country? If so, how?

17. Is the issue of gentrification about race or class?

18. In the story, Barlowe shares this quote with Sandy: "They say liberals conduct their lynchins from shorter trees" (p. #206). What do you suppose that means? What is it's significance to the story?

19. How is it possible that in Atlanta, a city with an African American mayor, blacks in neighborhoods such as the Old Fourth Ward are powerless to hold off encroachment on their communities?

20. How might Barlowe's challenges in figuring out "how to live" have affected his ability to find fulfilling relationships with women?

21. What, if any, symbolic significance do you see in Tyrone's pigeons?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

top of page

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2020