The things you do eventually catch up with you.
If there’s a central theme to Bill Hillmann’s debut novel, The Old Neighborhood (Curbside Splendor), that could be it.
Joe Walsh is essentially a good kid. In his heart he knows right from wrong. It’s his head that gets swayed from time to time, even though he knows that bad causes generally lead to bad effects. If sometimes that message gets forgotten, it’s repeated later in slightly coarser language: Shit eventually catches up to you.
Joe lives with his large mixed-race family in Edgewater (his brown sisters were adopted). His working-class parents try to steer their children away from trouble. He’s ten years old at the start of the novel. His friends are mixed too—”white, black, and Mexican kids”—but it’s a rough, racist, gang-infested neighborhood where basketball pickup games in the alley often end in fistfights and beatings. “When I was a little kid,” Joe recalls, “all I ever wanted to be was the baddest kid on the block.”
He’s not even the baddest kid in his own family. His older brother Pat, a member of the TJOs gang (Thorndale Jarvis Organization), is in prison for murder; plus, Pat’s a junkie. If fistfights and beatings are the worst that you get in this troubled hood, you’re doing all right—same if fistfights and beatings are the worst that you give.
But Joe is also a kid with a conscience:
Cops and robbers, right; it’s a fun game. Both sides have their heroes, both their villains. But I never truly wanted to play the villain. I don’t know that anyone does. I always knew Lil Pat was a robber but not a villain—the true villain—in all ways. Though, then, I always allowed that he be detached from himself when he was strung-out. That it wasn’t him who did those things. It was the drugs. There was solace in that, I guess, but it didn’t stop the things he did.
As kids Joe and his friends are into lowrider bikes, music, and girls. But the lure of the Edgewater gangs is attractive and insistent. As adolescents their interests turn toward drinking, drugs, and mayhem. (And still girls.) It’s a way to belong, to make money dealing drugs, to feel grown up: to be the baddest kid on the block. There’s almost no escape, even for a kid with a conscience. Joe eventually gets drawn deeper and deeper into the gangland world, with the expected dreadful consequences. Shit eventually catches up to him.
Hillmann knows the old neighborhood and the life from which he’s drawn his novel. In an interview on the Curbside Splendor website, he says:
“I’ve experienced a lot of violence in my life. There was violence in my household. My brother was a feared, violent gang member who went to prison for armed robbery. My other brother’s best friend died in a gangland murder. My sister got shot and critically wounded in a drive-by. I’ve been in way over a hundred fist-fights. I’ve been stabbed, beaten within an inch of my life, and I’ve done some very ugly things to people. I’ve stared down the barrel of loaded gun and witnessed shootings. All these experiences and the way they’ve haunted me have forced me to write about violence. I really didn’t choose it as a subject matter; it chose me.”
It’s intense fiction, and at times you may feel punched in the gut. Which is fitting, because Hillmann was a Golden Gloves boxer as well. But there’s a joy and ironic lightness at times too. One of my favorite scenes is when Joe ducks into Calo restaurant on Clark Street to escape some rival gang members, orders something to eat to delay them, and ends up kind of forgetting his situation because his meal is so good. He leaves a ten-buck tip.
It’s Joe’s compassion and interest in a larger world than Edgewater that ends up saving him. And in keeping with the Spring Books Issue’s Secrets theme, there’s a surprising revelation late in the book involving Joe’s old man.
Hillmann’s next readings are Sat 4/19, 7 PM, at the Book Cellar and Fri 4/25, 5:30 PM, at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore (with Joseph G. Peterson, Ben Tanzer, and Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski).
Here’s a book trailer for The Old Neighborhood:
And here’s Hillmann winning the 2002 Chicago Golden Gloves title: