FREE BURNING by Bayo Ojikutu
Kirkus Star


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An Everyman turns to dealing drugs—and pitches headlong downward.

Tommie Simms is desperate. Laid off from his job at Global Mutual IndemCorp, he’s torn from the sanctuary of his 83rd-floor office and returned to the Four Corners, a Chicago neighborhood where “they’ve got as many cardboard box-tops covering window holes as they’ve got glass.” Ojikutu (47th Street Black, 2003) renders the desperation palpable—of Tommie’s mother, on Step Five of her 12-step program, sick with worry; Tommie’s wife, Tarsha; and baby girl a stone’s throw from homelessness. A former golden boy who’d made it out of the ghetto to Southern Illinois University, Tommie can’t bear his defaulted credit cards and his family’s disappointment. His cousin, Remi, offers a way out: nickel bags of pot to sell. Tarsha turns a blind eye, and for a while, Tommie prospers, as feelings of guilt gnaw at his soul. He’s crossed over, after all—from the dream of suit-and-tie deliverance to a hard-knock nightmare, where hustlers parade the avenue oozing menace. Will he become, then, his own shadow-self? Officer Weidman has his eye on him, itching to bring down the upstart, too well-spoken for the Corners, too confident, uppity. Sure enough, Tommie gets busted—and a teasing, violent mano-a-mano begins between the fallen angel and the vengeful, devilish cop. Ojikutu’s story is tough and assured. What truly dazzles, though, is the language, a cross between James Baldwin’s soulful song and the nightmare poetry of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. The author’s voice is especially riveting when discussing loss and Tommie’s “mother who left me pinned to the window glass, watching trains and folks running in vain and waiting for some sign to point out love’s return.”

Gritty, lyrical, intense.

Pub Date: Oct. 3rd, 2006
ISBN: 1-4000-8289-7
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Three Rivers/Crown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2006