Ojikutu’s prizewinning debut depicts a small-time hoodlum’s rise to power and fall from grace.
The South Side of Chicago can make crime look like a good career choice. Mookie and his best friend JC, high-school dropouts both, don’t have many options before them, so when they accidentally become accessories in a mob slaying, they know enough to make a virtue of necessity and sign up with the gang. At first it looks like a great deal for everyone involved: Mookie and JC get their first real taste of money and power, and their bosses, Salvie Fuoco and Tommy Ricci, get a couple of reliable enforcers in the (to them) foreign territory of the black South Side. Most of the early work is small-time stuff—running numbers, collecting on bad debts, etc.—but before long JC and Mookie are important underworld figures in the neighborhood and significant forces in their own right. Tensions begin to emerge between them, however, as Mookie soon becomes the dominant partner and JC finds himself more and more relegated to the status of bagman running Mookie’s errands. When JC is arrested for a murder that he and Mookie committed together, Mookie deftly steps aside and lets his friend take the rap. Convicted and sentenced, JC spends the next 15 years in jail plotting his revenge. By the time he’s paroled, though, Mookie has become even more of a power and controls pretty much the whole South Side. Getting back at him isn’t going to be easy—or pretty—but by now JC has given up all pretense of being a nice guy. The South Side was never a quiet place, but it’s about to erupt now in a way no one has ever imagined.
Surprisingly rich and nuanced for a gangster story: a fine exposition of a hellish and utterly fascinating world, narrated in a colloquial style both vivid and credible.