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.)
"[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.
Reading Group Guide
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Discuss the book's title. What is its meaning? How is the word "them" used throughout the novel, and in what ways does its significance change?
2. This book is divided into three parts. Why do you think Nathan McCall chose this structure?
3. Though their differences are obvious, what characteristics do Sandy and Barlowe share? In spite of different worldviews that complicate their relationship, why do you think these two are ultimately able to bond?
4. "If Barlowe could have assembled the words that reflected his knowing, he might have said something like this: 'Between two people with perceptions shaped by realities as alien as ours, some things really are inscrutable; one person's truths can transcend another's language, rendering them utterly incapable of seeing eye to eye'" (p. 225). What does this mean? Do you agree?
5. Though the overarching conflict of the novel may be between the blacks and the whites who inhabit the Old Fourth Ward, some discord emerges within each race as well. In what instances do stereotypes inspire misunderstandings among residents of the same race?
6. Were you surprised to discover that Sean turned The Hawk in to the police? Do you think his action was justified?
7. Though Viola's official cause of death was liver failure, people in the neighborhood assumed she died of heartbreak after The Hawk mysteriously disappeared. Do you believe Sean is therefore implicated in Viola's death?
8. Contrast and compare how Sean and Barlowe each dealt with the occasional intrusions of Viola and The Hawk. Would you characterize Viola's death as a sad yet ultimately necessary result of gentrification, or a needless tragedy set in motion when the neighborhood's balance is thrown off kilter?
9. Although Sean and Sandy are obviously not welcome in the neighborhood, and in spite of several dangerous personal attacks, Sandy resists Sean's pressure to leave the Old Fourth Ward. Do you think her resolve is admirable or foolish? Is she to blame for what happens to Sean in the novel's violent climax?
10. In what ways does the author make statements about black self-sufficiency?
11. The Gilmores ultimately leave the Old Fourth Ward. Were there any instances throughout the novel when you believed that they would establish a happy life there?
12. Though they didn't intend to make a negative impact on the neighborhood, the Gilmores, like other whites, certainly did. Were there ways in which their presence produced positive results?
13. Do you think that, in leaving the neighborhood, the Smiths helped resolve a personal dilemma? Did they inadvertently help advance the process of gentrification?
14. Throughout the novel, Barlowe struggles with the feeling of "not knowing how to live" (p. #83). What does this mean? Are there other characters who deal with similar internal conflict?
15. Discuss Barlowe's transformation throughout the novel. What events and relationships inspire changes in his feelings, reactions, and goals? What ultimately enables him to feel at peace with himself by the end of book?
16. The instances in the book that involve segregated meetings or gatherings among ward residents primarily result in each group's strengthened dedication to remaining segregated. Do you think those actions symbolize continued racial divisions in this country? If so, how?
17. Is the issue of gentrification about race or class?
18. In the story, Barlowe shares this quote with Sandy: "They say liberals conduct their lynchins from shorter trees" (p. #206). What do you suppose that means? What is it's significance to the story?
19. How is it possible that in Atlanta, a city with an African American mayor, blacks in neighborhoods such as the Old Fourth Ward are powerless to hold off encroachment on their communities?
20. How might Barlowe's challenges in figuring out "how to live" have affected his ability to find fulfilling relationships with women?
21. What, if any, symbolic significance do you see in Tyrone's pigeons?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Research the history of Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward. Share your findings with the group.
2. Think about the social dynamic and ethnic makeup of your neighborhood. If it is at all homogenous, how would current residents react if people of other races or social classes moved in? If your neighborhood is racially or economically diverse, how is the social dynamic affected by that diversity? Share your opinions and feelings with the group.
3. Read Nathan McCall's Makes Me Wanna Holler as a companion text. In what ways might McCall's personal story have inspired Them?