three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-ThemDr. Martin Luther King, Jr., imagined a world in which black children and white children would play together and grow up together. But Them, a drama that unfolds in King’s Atlanta stomping grounds, shows that grown-ups may have to learn to play nice first. The novel tells the story of the Old Fourth Ward’s gentrification through next-door-neighbor narrators, one black and one white. As good intentions give way to misunderstandings and even violence, the militant-but-loveable Barlowe Reed and the liberal-but-clueless newcomer Sandy Gilmore must learn to form a relationship across the Gilmores’ iron fence.
Atria Books. 338 pages. $25. ISBN: 1416549153

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"McCall also is dead-on in his depiction of the differences between whites and blacks when it comes to home improvement, community policing and problem-solving, themes he began to explore in his nonfiction but which are fully and incisively realized here. … [Them] may draw comparisons with Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, but manages, in its depiction of Atlanta’s more downscale citizens, to go the master of New Journalism one better." Paula L. Woods

Seattle Post-Intelligencer 4 of 5 Stars
"The sad fact is that there should be more novels like this. … [Its] real value is the way it captures misperceptions and apprehensions of both blacks and whites and how difficult it is to bridge the divide." John Marshall

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As the novel progresses, however, McCall moves away from comedy and expertly ratchets up the tension, mining the explosive prejudices that gentrification brings." Vikas Turakhia

Dallas Morning News 3 of 5 Stars
"[McCall] does a fairly credible job of drawing characters who allow us to see two neighborhoods: one through the eyes of its black residents, the other through the eyes of the white newcomers. The novel doesn’t attempt to reconcile those differences. It instead tries to offer a brutally honest glimpse into how perspective differs depending on your cultural lens." Karen Thomas

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"McCall’s story, though filled with the myriad issues that are part of the gentrification debate, does not rise to the level of the novel of ideas that Them purports to be. … Although the issues of race, class and cultural and physical displacement in the narrative ring true, the way the characters discuss those issues and interact with each other seems stereotypical." W. Ralph Eubanks

Critical Summary

Former Washington Post reporter Nathan McCall’s previous work includes a memoir and a collection of essays. Like the characters in this debut novel, reviewers agreed that the ground covered in Them is valuable, but they disagreed over how it should be treated. While all critics thought that Barlowe is a complex protagonist and a fascinating black voice, many thought that McCall’s white characters are little more than stereotypes. Some reviewers interpreted these characters’ lack of depth as satire; others saw it as a realistic portrayal of how some people behave in a racially charged environment. The novel’s subject matter, gentrification, is a problem that few in America, white or black, have really figured out how to solve. As a result, most critics were willing to forgive the work’s shortcomings in the hope that its readers will learn to forgive as well.

Also by the Author

Makes Me Wanna Holler A Young Black Man in America (1994): In this memoir, McCall chronicles the hardships he suffered growing up black and male in America—from poverty to prison to racial profiling.