From memoirist and journalist McCall (What’s Going On: Personal Essays, 1997, etc.), a debut novel about an Atlanta neighborhood undergoing gentrification—or invasion, depending on your point of view.
The Old Fourth Ward, birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., is a little run-down now that affluent blacks have been siphoned off to the integrated suburbs, but it’s still a cozy African-American community that’s tolerant of the old men who sit gabbing every day outside the Auburn Avenue Mini Mart, of the drunk couple often staggering along the sidewalks and of the homeless man always hustling for odd jobs. The Fourth suits Barlowe Reed, who dreams of buying the shabby house he rents at 1024 Randolph St., if he can just get a decent raise out of his cracker boss at the Copy Right Print Shop. It also appeals to Sean and Sandy Gilmore, part of an influx of whites drawn to the handsome old houses available “for the cost of a ham sandwich.” Sean and Sandy want to be good neighbors; they can’t understand why everyone regards them with hostility and suspicion. Readers will get it, as potholes neglected for years are filled in, police patrols appear out of nowhere to roust the drunks, and whites get elected to all the offices of the Fourth Ward Civic League, which promptly calls for an end to outdoor card-playing (so rowdy) and frontyard barbecues (“those hideous steel drums”). The tentative friendship between next-door neighbors Sandy and Barlowe doesn’t stand a chance in this increasingly tense atmosphere as tires are slashed and fires started in the mailboxes of white-owned homes. McCall’s characterizations are vivid rather than deep: With the exception of Sandy, all white folks are cluelessly arrogant, and among the somewhat more fully drawn African-Americans, only Barlowe has any real depth. The plot is similarly schematic; what matters here is McCall’s painfully honest portrait of a nation racked by racial mistrust.
Squirm-inducing, which surely was the author’s intention.