Nathan McCall's first novel, Them, shares its name with a 1950s sci-fi horror movie about giant ants made by radioactive fallout. But the title turns out to be more appropriate than one might imagine, for the black and white citizens of McCall's rapidly gentrifying Atlanta neighborhood of the Old Fourth Ward, where Martin Luther King Jr. was born, find each other just as scary and alien as super-sized bugs.
The story is told through the eyes of Barlowe Reed, a working-class African American who toils in a print shop, where he's casually exploited by his tobacco-chomping boss. Our first view of Barlowe isn't hopeful. Disgusted by post-9/11 representations of the flag everywhere, disheartened because his girlfriend's dumped him and feeling oppressed by the powers-that-be that demand a portion of his meager wages on tax day, he destroys a stamp machine at the local post office. But the scene is a ruse. Barlowe is more an urban philosopher than a brawler, and he mostly watches, waits and takes action when he must as events unfold. McCall, author of the insightful Makes Me Wanna Holler, a meditation on the absurdity of American race relations, proves here that he's a fine fiction writer as well. His characters are unforgettable. There's not only Barlowe, but his talented, lazy hothead of a nephew who lives with him and the colorful longtime denizens of the Fourth Ward who are in danger of being displaced by the white folks who move into the neighborhood. One of the newcomers, Sandy, moves into the house next to Barlowe's. She's liberal and goodhearted, and Barlowe finds her incomprehensible. Still, a prickly, not-quite friendship develops between them. On the other hand, Sandy's husband Sean has brought to his new neighborhood such insecurities, like his inchoate racism and uncertainty about his own manhood, that he becomes a danger to himself and others. The results are almost tragic, and it's that narrow avoidance of catastrophe that gives the book a sort of hard-nosed optimism. Them is a well-executed and sobering examination of the tensions that can be a force for good or ill in a changing community.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.