My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Bill Hillman’s book isn’t a beach read, and it’s not a story that goes down quickly. So when you pick up The Old Neighborhood A Novel, be prepared to descend into the world of North Chicago neighborhoods.
The good: I’m a fan of complexity in storytelling. I’ve never enjoyed white hats versus black hats, and The Old Neighborhood doesn’t serve that up. Instead, you’re thrust into a bubbling caldron of desperation caused by the very things we see around us every day, e.g. poverty, crumbling education.
Don’t be alarmed, though. The book isn’t a social commentary. Instead, Hillman sets his characters loose within the gritty, working class world of Chicago neighborhoods.
Hillman also doesn’t shy away from the deeply complex relationships that we have with race and class. Again, his characters come to their views in ways that give readers an understanding of why and how the tensions between groups have developed, particularly considering the pressures pushing on their families from all sides. Even as characters spew epithets at each other, you are given glimpses into the world where those were created.
You understand how those views came to be even if you don’t condone them. That trick is particularly difficult to pull off.
The bad: The book’s narrative isn’t easy. Chicago and its neighborhoods are characters, which became a problem for a non-native Chicago reader. In the second act, new people and gangs appeared regularly, and I found myself unable to keep everyone’s affiliation straight. That confusion made it difficult for me to understand when I was supposed to feel tension, and when I was supposed to relax.
There was also a rather unsatisfying Deus ex machina with the narrator and his father near the end of the book, which felt both forced and unnecessary to the overall story.
The unsettled: On occasion, Hillman’s narrator breaks the fourth wall, and speaks directly to the reader from the future. These moments come during difficult moments within the narrative. During these times, the narrator speaks to us in a much more educated and emotionally evolved state.
While the narrative technique gives the reader some space to explore the darker issues happening in the novel (since they know the narrator turns out “okay”), it also undermines the thematic mood (which is that we don’t know if it’s going to turn out “okay”). That technique felt too neatly packaged for a story that was built upon chaotic, intra-neighborhood relationships.
The takeaway: Narratively, Hillman’s book takes on some difficult subject matter, which makes it worth the read even if its sprawling nature is sometimes hard to follow. Technically, his choices sometimes pull the reader out of the story, but those choices appear to have been done with a specific outcome in mind, e.g. giving the reader some safety in exploring the characters.
You’ll walk away from The Old Neighborhood a bit weary and tired, but you won’t be disappointed.