Bill Hillmann's "The Old Neighborhood" is about coming up the hard way on the streets of Chicago. It's about growing up in a place where all the choices seem bad. It's about a world where problems are solved with fists and bullets rather than words or compromises. It's a wonder that anyone there can dream of rising above, but that is precisely what Hillmann's hero, Joe Walsh, aspires to do.
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Joe is 9 when he witnesses his older brother Pat, a member of one of the last white gangs in the city, bludgeon an Assyrian kid to death with his own gun. The bloody scene haunts Joe over the five- or six-year span of the novel. It doesn't stop him from following in Pat's footsteps, though. He earns respect in the neighborhood by never backing down from a fight and by staying loyal to his crew. But contradictory impulses threaten to pull him to pieces. His brothers are racist, yet his adoptive sisters are black. The brother he looks up to most becomes a junkie and goes off to prison, yet he himself begins to deal weed not long after. He wants to be a warrior to protect his own turf, yet he wonders about astrophysics and faraway galaxies.
One of the strengths of "The Old Neighborhood" is the vivid and precise way Hillmann describes the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. White flight, then gradual gentrification, have transformed these streets over the years. But anyone who has spent any time in that part of town will recognize the signposts that dot these pages, setting it in a particular place rather than the generic inner city that's a setting to so many gang and drug dramas. What sets this tough guy's tale apart is a native's knowledge of the terrain and a recognition that even the starkest of conflicts are rarely black and white.
As the years pass, the kids who were once Joe's friends become his enemies, then his allies, then complete strangers, according to the street's changing dictates. Hillmann explores the intricate and often dumbfounding power structure of the city's gangs: Tense partnerships between factions hold for a time, then dissolve over seemingly trivial beefs. At every turn, kids are forced to choose sides; they must stick together or become victims. But with time, Joe sees that siding with those closest to him is the worst thing he can do if he wants anything other than the life of a thug. When his best friend, Ryan, begins to deal heroin — the drug that destroyed the life of Joe's brother Pat — Joe knows he has to get away.
We follow Joe's inner monologue, which is by turns blustering and introspective, as he wrestles his way out of the dead-end life to which he seems predestined. It's to Hillmann's great credit that Joe's salvation seems well earned rather than the product of the hackneyed, feel-good transcendence saga it could have been. What sets this one apart is that though we're not shielded from violence and ugliness, neither are we asked to believe that our hero is anything more than a kid trying to figure a way out. This isn't a fantasy, and no reader in his right mind would want to be a gangster after reading it.
Chicago is a place that is too often rendered in broad strokes. Caricatured for its outsized Al Capones, bumbling Cubs and mythical winds (and windbags), the place deserves a fairer shake. Like Stuart Dybek's Douglas Park, Gwendolyn Brooks' Bronzeville or Nelson Algren's Division Street, Bill Hillmann's Edgewater is a unique literary evocation of the city. By writing about the streets and the people he knows by heart, Hillman shows the contrary and complex forces at work in this city.
Dmitry Samarov is a painter and writer in Chicago. His book "Hack: Stories From a Chicago Cab" was published by University of Chicago Press in 2011.
"The Old Neighborhood"
By Bill Hillmann, Curbside Splendor, 424 pages, $15.95 paperback