A short, debut novel about race, ambition, and money in modern Milwaukee.
Winfield Payton, a professor of English, spends the downtime in his classes crafting “ideas for bad movies” to pitch to production companies. He works on business deals, too, as the communications director for Frederick Douglass Savings and Loan. As the story opens, the bank is looking for investors in Brewer’s Court, a gentrification project on the banks of the Milwaukee River. Winfield seems game to be Frederick Douglass’ token white representative; as Brooks Adams, the bank’s African-American head, says, “We need a chiclet—a white guy—to be our public face from time to time.” The search for money to finance Brewer’s Court forms the book’s central, overarching plot, but some chapters read as self-contained stories (and one was previously published as such in 2014 in The Great American Literary Magazine). The bank faces opposition from Father Moses, an African-American alderman who says that he believes in “building homes for the ‘hood! Not some Yuppie palace for a bunch of crackers and Oreos, man!” Connelly frankly raises issues of race, class, and stereotypes, especially after Brooks and Winfield wind up laundering Nigerian drug money. The book’s title is truly apt, as most of the characters aim—through skill, bargain, or pretense—to move outside their current circumstances. But although Connelly ably tackles some weighty themes, his style make the story seem more like a TV episode than literary fiction, due to a lack of back story and dense, dialogue-heavy text that’s full of pop-culture references. For example, he describes Brooks’ brother Lionel as “no James Dean, blackened to the eyes, stumbling from his roadster in Giant proclaiming a fountain of instant wealth.” The novel’s dated depiction of women may also alienate some readers; with the exception of Keisha Jackson, a lawyer for Frederick Douglass, they’re described with such phrases as “bosomy blondes” or “the brunette with the melons.”
Thematically rich but overstocked with underdeveloped characters.