By Nathan McCall
Atria. 338 pp. $25
Depending on your perspective, gentrification restores and revitalizes city neighborhoods, or it pushes the urban poor -- often African American -- out of affordable housing and further to the fringes of society. The presence of white faces accompanied by the luminous glow of a Starbucks sign gives a new twist to the cry, "There goes the neighborhood."
Race, class and the displacement that accompanies changes in an inner-city neighborhood provide the backdrop for Nathan McCall's first novel, Them. Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward is the stage for this urban drama, with Martin Luther King's birthplace only blocks away from much of the main action. Sometimes, it's almost as if King functions as another character in the story; his call for social justice looms heavily in the background. Still, McCall's story, though filled with the myriad issues that are part of the gentrification debate, does not rise to the level of the novel of ideas that Them purports to be.
Barlowe Reed, a longtime working class resident of Atlanta's Fourth Ward, rents a house with his troubled nephew, Tyrone, and dreams of becoming a homeowner. In the first section of the book, Barlowe begins to notice more white people in the neighborhood, and not just tourists who have wandered away from the Martin Luther King historic site. Real estate agents cruise by in expensive cars. Barlowe's white landlord shies away from selling him the property at a reasonable price. "I think we better get ready," Barlowe comments to a neighbor after witnessing this chain of events. "I know," his neighbor replies, " They comin."
By the second part of the book, "they" have moved next door. Sandy and Sean Gilmore, a white professional couple from suburban Atlanta, renovate the dilapidated Victorian, and changes in the neighborhood shift into high gear. Fear of a white takeover of this historic black neighborhood begins to take hold among the residents, with some even claiming to be filled with nightmares "about battalions of construction crews storming the streets, bursting into their homes, hammering away."
Across their fence, Barlowe and Sandy develop a relationship of sorts, albeit one marked by the discomfort they feel with each other, amplified by the racial and class divide. To complicate matters, Sandy and Barlowe's relationship puts Sandy at odds with her husband and makes Barlowe seem disloyal to neighbors he once counted as friends. Much of the remainder of the novel revolves around this tenuous friendship, and most of their conversations take place with a fence dividing them.
In his bestselling memoir, Makes Me Wanna Holler, McCall recalled how African Americans viewed Atlanta when he arrived there in 1983 as a reporter for the Journal-Constitution. Atlanta was "the 'Black Mecca,' a place of boundless prosperity where jobs for blacks fell from the sky like manna from heaven." As a journalist, McCall dug deeper into the city's psyche and quickly realized it was not the black man's paradise it claimed to be. Racism and poverty existed alongside the glitz and glass of Peachtree Street, with the poverty of the old Fourth Ward hidden by the shiny towers of downtown.
In Them, McCall tries to dig deeper into Atlanta's complex racial history through his fictional characters, but he often only skims the surface. Fiction can provide many windows into controversial issues through characters' points of view. Yet encounters, dialogue and characters that spring from the writer's imagination must seem as realistic as they would in narrative nonfiction. Therein rests the central problem of Them. Although the issues of race, class and cultural and physical displacement in the narrative ring true, the way the characters discuss those issues and interact with each other seems stereotypical. During conversations across their back fence, Barlowe is a genuine, fully formed character who grows and evolves; Sandy, however, remains a caricature of a well-meaning liberal white woman. And she is sometimes dismissed by Barlowe as "just a silly white girl lookin for somethin interestin to do." Her husband's single memorable characteristic is his fear of black men, a fear that overcomes him to the point that he begins to have panic attacks. Black stereotypes populate the landscape as well, including slender, educated black women with "no vibe" versus their friendly full-figured counterparts, and a preacher who takes "too many shortcuts on the 'th' sound."
The basic premise of Them, with its unique twist on "there goes the neighborhood" and its confrontation of issues of race and class in a modern setting, made it a book I wanted to like. But in the end, McCall's view of these issues is not incisive enough to reveal the full story. ¿
W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of "Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi's Dark Past."