We had a Zenith television when I was a kid. It was big, bigger than me. When we wanted to change the channel, we had to get up and turn the dial. When the plastic dial broke, or at least the part that connected it to the channel mechanism on the TV, then we superglued the broken bit of plastic back together. We used the dial until it broke, again. We superglued it again. This kept going on until the plastic dial couldn’t be repaired anymore. Then we just risked cutting our fingers against the sharp-edged plastic of the now-exposed channel changing mechanism. We pressed our fingers against it, twisted our wrists and changed the channel. There were only 13 stops on the dial, and only four stations: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. We made do and we kept that TV long after friends started to buy Sony Trinitrons. Eventually, we got something from Panasonic.
Bob Hartley’s second novel, North and Central (Tortoise Books, 240 pages, $16), is set in a Chicago bar whose clientele consisted mostly of Zenith factory workers and who, no doubt, would mock my use of “clientele” to describe them. “Drinkers,” perhaps, is better? “Strugglers,” perhaps, too, as Zenith is on the decline due to competition from Japan—the entire neighborhood is rough shape. Another name for those workers could be “Trump voters,” which is more about when I read the book than when it was written or its setting a few decades ago in the 1970s.
These people have gotten a raw deal through no fault of their own—mostly. Andy is stuck with a bar his parents ran. His customer base is dwindling to the few factory workers who remain—or the drunks who just don’t want to leave—and his childhood best friend, who just so happens to be a corrupt cop. Andy, seeing his world fall around him, decides the only way through it is to become a criminal himself. He sets about trying to be smart about it. The one thing he’s sure about is that he can’t trust his partners.
I don’t mean to give the impression that this just another crime caper; rather, it is much more. It is a close examination of a world and the motivations of the people who inhabit it; or, rather, the people who are shaped by it.
In this his second published novel, Bob Hartley achieves deep revelations that stretch from the mundane—how a dive bar operates (how it buys alcohol, hires help, deals with customer, and handles money and bookkeeping)—to the sublime—in the face of mortality how do you react? How do you shape your own legacy in a world that has twisted your ability to shape your life?
I don’t want to give much more of the plot away. North and Central is rich with discoveries and is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Hartley approaches his characters with generosity and without judgment. They are going about trying to do what they can with what they have at hand. Much the same way we tried our best with the broken channel dial on our Zenith from our childhood.
That I can see my own suburban childhood in Hartley’s deft revelations of the inner-workings of a Chicago dive bar in the late 1970s has everything to do with his powers as a writer. He brings a great deal of compassion to the inner-lives of characters who struggle with grit and humor.
Both the physical and emotional landscapes of North and Central complement Hartley’s debut novel, Following Tommy, which gives a teenager’s point of view as he learns how a 1960s working class Chicago neighborhood operates in terms of class, race, crime and the law. Both novels are highly recommended.