Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, December 17, 2007

"There Goes the Neighborhood": Them by Nathan McCall

Them by Nathan McCall

In Nathan McCall's examination of the dark side of gentrification, Barlowe Reed is a printer who lives in Atlanta's Fourth Ward, the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. Pushing 40, Reed decides it's time to settle down and sets about trying to buy the house he rents from his evasive, white landlord.

The reason for the landlord's reluctance soon becomes clear as realtors begin snooping around the neighborhood, and striking deals with its residents. Soon, "For Sale" signs start popping up in front yards, and moving vans carting white middle class suburbanites and their Pottery Barn furnishings begin to appear in front of the houses. And whitey has some definite ideas about how "their" new neighborhood ought to be shaping up.

Longtime residents of the historically black Fourth Ward are initially wary of their new neighbors, and vice versa; however, these feelings quickly evolve into something much uglier. Reed strikes up a tentative friendship with his next-door-neighbor Sandy Gilmore, a well-meaning, if annoyingly naive white woman. Sandy is determined to fit into the Fourth Ward, while her husband, Sean, adopts more of a siege mentality. While Reed and Sandy attempt to broker some kind of peace in the neighborhood, Sean throws in, almost gleefully, with their "us versus them" white neighbors.

The book is strangely reminiscent of Tom Perrotta's suburban wastelands, with national dramas being enacted on a local scale. McCall does an excellent job of handling all sides of the class and race warfare that erupts in the book, and hints at the idea that the source of the problem lies more with the faceless realty companies and civil bureaucracies (entities which Reed uniformly refers to as "Caesar") than with individual players. Additionally, Reed is a fully realized and wonderfully complex character, whose attitude towards the future of his neighborhood shifts believably during the course of the book.

Supporting characters, unfortunately, are a bit more wooden and sometimes fall into caricature. However, McCall still carries out that delicate task of writing a book that addresses big, sometimes abstract issues head-on without sacrificing the personal struggles of most characters and their stories to didacticism. It's one of my favorite books of the year, and dare I haul out the term, an important one.

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