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.
Following Tommy by Bob Hartley is a gem of a book: hard, brilliant and valuable.
It tells the story of Jacky O’Day, a bookish teen who lives in a changing Irish neighborhood in 1962 Chicago with an alcoholic father and a troubled older brother, Tommy. All of them live in the devastating aftermath of the early death of the woman in their life, the clear-headed mother and wife who had kept the three on the straight and narrow.
Without her, Jacky follows Tommy into his forays of petty crimes, as if that is the only viable path through their hardscrabble world. When Tommy’s crimes grow more violent, though, Jacky begins to question their relationship and himself.
Hartley delves into questions of identity and race, and offers a dramatic portrait of how a specific kind of Chicago neighborhood operates, with and against the law.
Through it all, Hartley’s clear, concise prose remains unflinching and cutting at times.
The slim volume from the independent publisher Cervena Barva Press is highly recommended.