Book Review: Following Tommy by Bob Hartley

Following Tommy by Bob HartleyFollowing Tommy a novel by Bob Hartley

Review by Gordon O’Sullivan

  • Paperback: 104 pages
  • Publisher: Cervena Bara Press (2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN 978-0-9831041-8-6 

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Following Tommy is a vibrant fictional portrait of the summer of ’62 by a teenager in Chicago. In a strong opening, the narrator, Jacky O’Day, establishes his family as a poor Irish American family living in a downtrodden part of the city.

Seventeen year old Jacky looks after the family, cooking and cleaning for his father Junior and his brother Tommy. His mother is dead and all that remains of her are the books she left behind.

His father is a shameless drunk, not dissimilar to the character Frank Gallagher from the TV series Shameless albeit without his humour. But it is from his older brother Tommy that Jacky takes his lead. Tommy is a violent, dominant and domineering figure who has a grudge against the world at large. And for Jacky, despite his nagging conscience, where Tommy leads Jacky feels compelled to follow.

Everything changes and the stakes are raised considerably for the O’Days when a black family, the first black family, move into the neighbourhood. Before this Jacky and Tommy were just a couple of teenage petty crooks but Tommy is determined to make a name for himself by driving the new arrivals out no matter the cost to himself of his brother.

Jacky has a clear but tortuous choice: he can continue to follow Tommy down an increasingly dangerous path or he can remove himself completely from Tommy’s orbit.

This debut novel attempts to cover a number of subjects; racism, class and Chicago politics but is at its most successful when Mr Hartley focuses his considerable linguistic fire on the political, social and emotional awakening of the teenage Jacky.

While this gritty narrative covers well-trodden territory with strong echoes for example of James T. Farrell, Hartley’s writing has great integrity and no easy or lazy resolutions are permitted.

While at times Jacky seems enlightened beyond his years, he is still convincing as an intelligent boy who recognises the danger of his situation but is reluctant to do what he knows innately to be right.

The characterisation generally is excellent, with seeming authenticity running through all the characters, especially the minor police characters who are delightfully flawed, pursuing lawbreakers without paying particular attention to the law they’re meant to uphold.

The language is precise, period sensitive and appropriately salty with dialogue that shines in often witty interaction between characters, in particular between the O’Day brothers and their cousin Hippo.

Following Tommy also has an authentic sense of time and place in its vibrant descriptions of the streets and markets of Chicago’s West Side and is a challenging, atmospheric and passionate novel of a teenager growing up while living the reality of the American Dream.

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