The Old Neighborhood’s opening pages contain an old news article from the Chicago Defender reporting on the police having to escort black students out of Senn High School in the 1960’s. In the prologue, we’re brought down to the street where a white gang, called the TJOs, crowd around the group of police and students, cat-calling and laughing at the procession. To any Chicagoan, this story is sadly familiar and part of our city’s sordid history of racial segregation, violence, and white plight. Bill Hillmann uses this opening scene to tune the reader’s ear before he introduces the novel’s narrator, Joey, whose own story begins in the late 1980’s on the north side of Chicago in Edgewater.
In his literary debut, Hillmann’s four hundred twenty-four page epic has, at its center, Joey’s coming of age story of surviving the strife of gang life, which is then enveloped by a historical narrative of the TJOs who have dominated his neighborhood since the 60’s.
Joey is the youngest son of six siblings, Lil Pat, Blake, Richie, Jan, Rose, and himself. Lil Pat, nicknamed Pistol Pat was a current leader of the TJOs alongside Mickey Reid, and Fat Buck. One of Joey’s best friends is Ryan Reid, Mickey’s nephew. Not to mention Dad, a union construction worker—who with Joey’s Ma, had Pat at the age of thirteen. Then there’s Da, Joey’s grandfather, who’s pretty much the family’s closest thing to a rational adult. Joey meets his other best friend, Angel, who had locked eyes on Joey’s crush and soon to be girlfriend, Hyacinth.
This is the central band of characters around Joey who frequently appear, and I haven’t even listed any of the other TJOs, the rival gangs of GDs, PG3s, and other crews. Skeptical that Joey’s narrative stage could contain this amount of players, it in fact is a remarkable feat of Hillmann’s talent as a storyteller to judiciously interweave so many characters into a coherent narrative without drowning in exposition. That said, the consequence of this feat is Joey’s voice has to fluctuate from a conversational first-person to an authorial third, which is not as seamless as the novel’s other elements.
I’d also suggest sketching out a family tree (which I did) to keep track of all the secondary characters who appear. It’s not just a throwaway title on the jacket; Hillmann sets out to depict an entire neighborhood.
In the novel’s first chapter, Joey naively describes his time at the carnival alongside his buddy Ryan as Lil Pat and Mickey Reid hang out and drink beer. Suddenly shots were fired and Lil Pat and Mickey were off galloping after the Assyrian shooter with Joey and Ryan trailing at their heels when: “Lil Pat emerged from the drug store with Mickey right behind him. Their laughter fizzled into a popping giggle. Their hands were as red as butchers’ to the forearms, and there was a bulge in Lil Pat’s blood-speckled waistband.”
The chapter sets in motion the novel’s dual narrative of Joey’s internal bind between the love of his family and crew versus their violent nature, and also baptizes him in the daily strife of gang life. The novel progresses forward into a deepening spiral. Joey, Ryan, and Angel form their own crew, selling marijuana bought off TJO suppliers which entangles them further into the political struggle between the larger gangs vying for power over the neighborhood.
For the rest of his childhood, Joey’s haunted by the death of the Assyrian, and feels guilty for his own acts of cruelty. Along with these internal wounds, Hyacinth and Da’s influence becomes the germ of Joey’s conscience that forms over the entire arc of the novel appearing often before he goes to sleep in moments of self-reflection or within dreams.
Hillmann’s dialogue is accurate and superb in capturing the dialects of the north side. His use of specific streets and Chicago landmarks without a commensurate explanation or description risks insulating out non-Chicagoan readers, but it does not distract from the plot—although if any book deserved a map in it’s opening pages, this one is a prime candidate.
Reading The Old Neighborhood is an exercise of empathy not everyone will enjoy or wish to endure. It is not for the light-hearted or the squeamish. Hillmann does not sugarcoat his character’s vicious acts whether it’s describing a drug dealer pissing on a heroin addict, or describing a blown-out skull. Each fistfight and gunshot Joey and his crew encounters only produces the next wave of violence that slowly strips away at Joey, his friends, his family, and his neighborhood. It’s unbearable to watch Joey and his friends sink deeper into the gang’s power struggle. It’s like helplessly watching a loved one teetering on a ledge.
It is this unflinching honesty that I admire in The Old Neighborhood that either a reader can stomach or choose to ignore.