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Themby Nathan McCall
Synopses & Reviews
The author of the bestselling memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler presents a profound debut novel — in the tradition of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities and Zadie Smith's White Teeth — that captures the dynamics of class and race in today's urban integrated communities.
Nathan McCall's novel, Them, tells a compelling story set in a downtown Atlanta neighborhood known for its main street, Auburn Avenue, which once was regarded as the "richest Negro street in the world."
The story centers around Barlowe Reed, a single, forty-something African American who rents a ramshackle house on Randolph Street, just a stone's throw from the historic birth home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Barlowe, who works as a printer, otherwise passes the time reading and hanging out with other men at the corner store. He shares his home and loner existence with a streetwise, twenty-something nephew who is struggling to get his troubled life back on track.
When Sean and Sandy Gilmore, a young white couple, move in next door, Barlowe and Sandy develop a reluctant, complex friendship as they hold probing — often frustrating — conversations over the backyard fence.
Members of both households, and their neighbors as well, try to go about their business, tending to their homes and jobs. However, fear and suspicion build — and clashes ensue — with each passing day, as more and more new whites move in and make changes and once familiar people and places disappear.
Using a blend of superbly developed characters in a story that captures the essence of this country's struggles with the unsettling realities of gentrification, McCall has produced a truly great American novel.
"The embattled characters who people McCall's trenchant, slyly humorous debut novel (following the 1994 memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler and a 1997 essay collection) can't escape gentrification, whether as victim or perpetrator. As he turns 40, Barlowe Reed, who is black, moves to buy the home he's long rented in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. His timing is bad: whites have taken note of the cheap, rehab-ready houses in the historically black neighborhood and, as Barlowe's elderly neighbor says to him, 'They comin.' Skyrocketing housing prices and the new neighbors' presumptuousness anger Barlowe, whose 20-something nephew is staying with him, and other longtime residents, who feel invaded and threatened. Battle lines are drawn, but when a white couple moves in next door to Barlowe, the results are surprising. Masterfully orchestrated and deeply disturbing illustrations of the depth of the racial divide play out behind the scrim of Barlowe's awkward attempts to have conversations in public with new white neighbor Sandy. McCall also beautifully weaves in the decades-long local struggle over King's legacy, including the moment when a candidate for King's church's open pulpit is rejected for 'linguistic lapses... unbefitting of the crisp doctoral eloquence of Martin Luther King.' McCall nails such details again and again, and the results, if less than hopeful, are poignant and grimly funny." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Depending on your perspective, gentrification restores and revitalizes city neighborhoods, or it pushes the urban poor — often African American — out of affordable housing and further to the fringes of society. The presence of white faces accompanied by the luminous glow of a Starbucks sign gives a new twist to the cry, 'There goes the neighborhood.' Race, class and the displacement... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) that accompanies changes in an inner-city neighborhood provide the backdrop for Nathan McCall's first novel, 'Them.' Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward is the stage for this urban drama, with Martin Luther King's birthplace only blocks away from much of the main action. Sometimes, it's almost as if King functions as another character in the story; his call for social justice looms heavily in the background. Still, McCall's story, though filled with the myriad issues that are part of the gentrification debate, does not rise to the level of the novel of ideas that 'Them' purports to be. Barlowe Reed, a longtime working class resident of Atlanta's Fourth Ward, rents a house with his troubled nephew, Tyrone, and dreams of becoming a homeowner. In the first section of the book, Barlowe begins to notice more white people in the neighborhood, and not just tourists who have wandered away from the Martin Luther King historic site. Real estate agents cruise by in expensive cars. Barlowe's white landlord shies away from selling him the property at a reasonable price. 'I think we better get ready,' Barlowe comments to a neighbor after witnessing this chain of events. 'I know,' his neighbor replies, 'They comin.' By the second part of the book, 'they' have moved next door. Sandy and Sean Gilmore, a white professional couple from suburban Atlanta, renovate the dilapidated Victorian, and changes in the neighborhood shift into high gear. Fear of a white takeover of this historic black neighborhood begins to take hold among the residents, with some even claiming to be filled with nightmares 'about battalions of construction crews storming the streets, bursting into their homes, hammering away.' Across their fence, Barlowe and Sandy develop a relationship of sorts, albeit one marked by the discomfort they feel with each other, amplified by the racial and class divide. To complicate matters, Sandy and Barlowe's relationship puts Sandy at odds with her husband and makes Barlowe seem disloyal to neighbors he once counted as friends. Much of the remainder of the novel revolves around this tenuous friendship, and most of their conversations take place with a fence dividing them. In his best-selling memoir, 'Makes Me Wanna Holler,' McCall recalled how African Americans viewed Atlanta when he arrived there in 1983 as a reporter for the Journal-Constitution. Atlanta was 'the "Black Mecca," a place of boundless prosperity where jobs for blacks fell from the sky like manna from heaven.' As a journalist, McCall dug deeper into the city's psyche and quickly realized it was not the black man's paradise it claimed to be. Racism and poverty existed alongside the glitz and glass of Peachtree Street, with the poverty of the old Fourth Ward hidden by the shiny towers of downtown. In 'Them,' McCall tries to dig deeper into Atlanta's complex racial history through his fictional characters, but he often only skims the surface. Fiction can provide many windows into controversial issues through characters' points of view. Yet encounters, dialogue and characters that spring from the writer's imagination must seem as realistic as they would in narrative nonfiction. Therein rests the central problem of 'Them.' Although the issues of race, class and cultural and physical displacement in the narrative ring true, the way the characters discuss those issues and interact with each other seems stereotypical. During conversations across their back fence, Barlowe is a genuine, fully formed character who grows and evolves; Sandy, however, remains a caricature of a well-meaning liberal white woman. And she is sometimes dismissed by Barlowe as 'just a silly white girl lookin for somethin interestin to do.' Her husband's single memorable characteristic is his fear of black men, a fear that overcomes him to the point that he begins to have panic attacks. Black stereotypes populate the landscape as well, including slender, educated black women with 'no vibe' versus their friendly full-figured counterparts, and a preacher who takes 'too many shortcuts on the "th" sound.' The basic premise of 'Them,' with its unique twist on 'there goes the neighborhood' and its confrontation of issues of race and class in a modern setting, made it a book I wanted to like. But in the end, McCall's view of these issues is not incisive enough to reveal the full story. W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of 'Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi's Dark Past.'" Reviewed by W. Ralph Eubanks, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Nathan McCall's debut novel, Them, a mirror of our time and souls, is awesome and destined to become a contemporary classic." Eric Jerome Dickey, New York Times bestselling author
"What should we write about in our complex and changing world? And how? These are the questions that a writer constantly asks....Nathan McCall masterfully provides us with an answer. His novel could be taken as a model for modern writing." Maryse Condé, award-winning author of The Story of the Cannibal Woman
"Them is a character-driven, insightful novel that gives readers an entertaining and balanced glance at gentrification. Nathan McCall has done a brilliant job of showcasing his talent, while at the same time showing his compassion for human nature." Zane, New York Times bestselling author of Afterburn
"Complex and flawed characters weave a story that tests our own contradictory feelings about gentrification and racial and class bias. A compelling read." Erica Simone Turnipseed, author of A Love Noire, Hunger, and the upcoming My Name Is Zanzibar
"[A] novel that may draw comparisons with Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, but manages, in its depiction of Atlanta's more downscale citizens, to go the master of New Journalism one better." Los Angeles Times
"Imperfect as it is, Them is provocative, at times heartbreaking. And yet, against the odds, it offers a glimmer of hope." USA Today
"[A] sensitive look at the dynamics of gentrification." Booklist
About the Author
Nathan McCall grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia. He studied journalism at Norfolk State University after serving three years in prison. He reported for the Virginian Pilot-Ledger Star and the Altanta Journal-Constitution before moving to The Washington Post in 1989.
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