Monday, April 28, 2014

A Review from Boswellian Mel: The Old Neighborhood by Bill Hillmann

Every once and awhile, I come across a book that captures the tone of a time and place in a pitch perfect way. It resonates with the clarity of the original moment, but it happens to someone else, in the space of fiction, and it's written so well that I think "yes--that's it." Better than I could have remembered it. Better than I could have captured the moment myself in writing. Bill Hillmann's incredible debut novel, The Old Neighborhood, is one such book.

Three friends--Joe, Angel, and Ryan--navigate adolescence in the early 1990's against the jagged backdrop of Edgewater, an economically depressed neighborhood in Chicago. Joe grows up the youngest of the boys in the Walsh house. He has two younger sisters, both adopted from the Dominican Republic. His grandfather ran with the Thorndale Jarvis Organization, or TJOs, a "stone greaser gang" that sprouted up in the 1960s (24). This gang acted as heavies, keeping the neighborhood safe from outsiders while controlling drug trafficking. For a generation, the TJOs helped the neighborhood find prosperity and peace--and then the burden falls to a new generation of young men.

Joe Walsh's father, a union laborer, lives in Edgewater, but does not truck with the TJOs. Instead, the torch skips a generation and is thrust into his eldest son's hands. TheOld Neighborhood opens with the transition of Patrick, the oldest Walshson, into "Pistol Pat." This is a scene that Joe cannot shake. Before Pistol Pat is hauled off to jail, the next eldest, Rich, is the victim of a vicious assault that alters the course of his life. Regardless of the protection of the TJOs, the Walsh men struggle through life, often slammed by wave after wave of violence, utterly ravaged by hard luck. The landscape is bleak, but not hopeless. Despite being beaten down at every turn, somewhere amidst his family trials, the urban decay, destiny to fail, among the toil, poverty, violence, gang colors, spent bullets, addiction, and an unyielding color line, Joe Walsh finds beauty and loves deeply.

In an early scene, after a vicious fight spurred by racial tension, Joe lies in bed at home, crying. His sister Jan comes in to comfort him and Joe wonders if her dark skin makes her the ugly word he heard on the street that day. The thought had never occurred to him—she had only ever been Jan, his sister, and he yearns to tell her he loves her:

"[s]trings of agony coursed down my throat and planted in my heart. She stayed beside me, silently strumming her fingers gently through my hair. My love for her, my sister, like a giant, deep lake with bright yellow sunlight streaking its peaking surface. I went to say it—to say it all—but it got caught in my throat as the exhaustion billowed up and encompassed me in a heavy, warm fog, and I sank into sleep." (47)

The Old Neighborhood is reminiscent of Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, re-contextualizing the classic coming-of-age narrative in a diverse neighborhood in the heart of the city. Chicago author Bill Hillmann susses out rhythms from the cacophony of the city and weaves them in fluid, honest prose. Bill Hillmann is the Cormac McCarthy of the streets. A welcome addition to the modern literary landscape, Hillmann's distinct voice captures the confusion of adolescence with stunning accuracy, while transmuting growing pains into soul-stirring poetry.

The Old Neighborhood is Sons of Anarchy meets The Wire, pulsating with an urban vibe built upon complex, unique characters that follow their own moral codes. Hillmann writes strong male characters that are violent and quick-tempered, yes, but at the same time warm, vulnerable, and not afraid of their emotions. One of Hillmann’s talents is his ability to write human paradox without vilifying characters. All of his characters are round and dynamic, flowing in and out of each other's lives like fish in a school, individual, yet part of an important collective. Like the Faulknerean town, the Edgewater of The Old Neighborhood is a profound character in the narrative, shaping the lives of its denizens in a variety of ways.

Another strength Hillmann demonstrates in this singular debut is the ability to run characters through trials that help them develop, without exploiting their suffering. This is no simple task for a writer: there is a delicate balance between showing what the character goes through and reveling in their demise. Hillmann retains the utmost respect for his motley crew of thieves, junkies, and outlaws, and it’s palpable on every page. 

As Bill Hillmann said in an interview with Jacob S. Knabb, Senior Editor of Curbside Splendor: “We are all battling within…We can’t defeat our demons alone.” This is a statement from someone who knows. As a Union Construction Laborer, Chicago Golden Gloves Champion, and one-time gang affiliate, Bill Hillmann has lived this truth. And it’s a truth that calls out from the pages of The Old Neighborhood. I crave stories in which characters go through hell to show me how I, too, can pull through: this is one such book. The Old Neighborhood is a story I can put into someone's hands when they're looking for answers and needing hope. Thank you Bill Hillmann and Curbside Splendor: I'm happy this book exists.

Bill Hillmann is an award-winning writer and storyteller from Chicago. His writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Newcity,, and has been broadcast on NPR. He’s told stories around the world with his internationally acclaimed storytelling series the Windy City Story Slam. Hillmann is a Union Construction Laborer and a bull-runner in Spain. In the not so distant past, Hillmann was a feared street brawler, gang affiliate, drug dealer, convict, and Chicago Golden Glove Champion.

Don't miss your chance to hear the fascinating and entertaining Bill Hillmann as he swings by Boswell Book Company for a reading and signing on Saturday, May 10th at 7 PM!!!

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