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Spectacular Averageness in Chicago’s South Side

Spectacular Averageness in Chicago’s South Side

The story of Chicago’s South Side often falls within two narratives — stereotypes of violence and crime, and brilliant, extraordinary individuals (like the Obamas) who find their way out. But this dichotomy is narrow and silences the experiences of many South Side residents. In reality, most don’t fall into these experiences, but somewhere in between — a place of averageness.

In an essay about his debut novel Everywhere You Don’t Belong, Gabriel Bump says, “I wanted to show the Chicago not many outsiders understand. I wanted to write a novel for the teenagers riding the Jeffery Local with their headphones on, their hats turned straight, their minds on girlfriends and forever love, their unfinished algebra worksheets crumpled in their backpacks, their dreams about belonging to a peaceful world. I wanted to represent the spectacular average—the sometimes plain and sometimes harrowing journeys of all of us in the middle.”

Claude McKay Love, the novel’s protagonist, is an average kid navigating basketball tryouts and friendship, first love and life beyond high school, as well as violence, riots, and issues of abandonment. He’s raised by his socially-conscious grandmother and her eccentric friend Paul, a gay man who is arguably one of the most memorable characters in recent literature. Claude wants to be a journalist and heads to Missouri for college, where he’s surrounded by a sea of whiteness. He and fellow student Simone are the only people of color on the school paper and are asked to speak about the black experience, which Simone calls out as “fucked up.” Claude reflects:

Whitney was terrified of what most terrifies white people in liberal-minded professional environments—Whitney didn’t want Simone to call her a racist. Whitney was terrified of being labeled. I would’ve felt sorry for her, tried to calm the situation; I would’ve tried to see the tension-filled scene from her perspective; I would’ve tried to imagine Whitney as a high school junior arguing with her father about the proper term to call black people—African-American, not nigger; I would’ve imagined her last fall, out on the Missouri highway with a busload of other Obama volunteers, canvassing for hope and change and a new world, one different from the world that raised them; I would’ve imagined her reading James Baldwin in a café, shaking her head and furrowing her brow at injustice—I would’ve helped her out, if Simone wasn’t right.

Claude’s reflections on the world around him are sprinkled throughout and are never heavy-handed. The novel starts off with a very coming-of-age feel, comprised somewhat of disconnected vignettes — until Claude’s time in Missouri. But when Janice, his first love, comes to campus, the story propels forward, tying everything up into a surprising and exhilarating finish.

That said, after finishing the novel, the opening pages almost seem like throat-clearing. From a plot level, Bump’s novel could arguably start on page 52 and the story would be tighter, wielding the ending to a sharper conclusion. It’s here, in chapter “Sixty-Seventh Street,” that the Redbelters, a notorious gang, is introduced. Grandma warns Claude:

Don’t look too long, just glance. You know what they’re doing? Those kids, boys and girls, dealing drugs. I knew them when they were you: young and sad at the world. I knew their fathers and mothers, most of them. They’re smart like you. Smart enough to do basic math, smart enough to know when someone’s trying to kill or fool them. That’s smarter than a lot of people in this world. Still, society doesn’t want them to go anywhere. Those kids aren’t taking the bus. They’re going to stand all day; then, they’re going to stand all night. They’re going to stand until dust settles on their exposed skeletons.

Bump’s prose is tight and clean, a pleasure to read. He doesn’t waste words or pages with unnecessary description. The characters come to life not through adjectives, but through their dialogue. Paul is so memorable not because of how he’s described or even what he does, but the things he says. Bump’s sentences sizzle with perfectly timed humor and interiority. The novel makes you laugh out loud, but also nod at its poignancy on issues of class and racism.

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Part of what makes it possible for the novel to be so on-point about these issues is through these characters who defy stereotypes. Grandma is not your typical church-going grandmother raising her grandchild and worrying about his education — she’s a former actress/ activist who would love nothing more than for Claude to lead a revolution. Claude’s parents’ absence defines who he is, but their departure from Chicago is itself a challenge of the old narrative — they leave of their own agency, an act of taking back their lives. Paul then becomes a stand-in father, with his gloriously unapologetic and questionable principals. And in this vibrant trio what it means to be a family is redefined.

Of all the novel’s virtues, its biggest achievement might be the way it confronts a common narrative of the South Side experience while giving voice to a greater and more universal experience — the spectacular average.

Everywhere You Don’t Belong
By Gabriel Bump
Algonquin Books
Published February 4, 2020

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