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By Eric Charles May
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Chicago, as the saying goes, is a city of neighborhoods. Parkland, which Columbia College professor Eric Charles May has created and populated for his debut novel out now from Akashic Books, seems like a good one.
Parkland is located on the nether-regions of Chicago's South Side, so far from the loop that it's bordered on two sides by towns that are actually suburbs. Parkland has the reputation of being Chicagoland's oldest all-black community. It's a middle-class stronghold that has a reputation for a superiority complex among other South Side blacks. Pride of ownership abounds. Mr. May paints a vivid picture of brightly-colored houses, wide lawns, clean streets, and a shopping district that exudes charm from a bygone era.
Bedrock Faith takes place mostly on one Parkland block, which Mr. May peoples with a lively cast of mostly older characters, who have lived in Parkland since the sixties and seventies: goodhearted widow Mrs. Motley, voluptuous beauty Erma Smedley, block club president Mr. Davenport and his wife and daughter, an ex-Black Panther type named Mrs. Butler and her grandson Reggie, the local busybody Mrs. Hicks and her husband, the war veteran Mr. McTeer, and 26th Ward Alderman Vernon Paiger.
The one blight on the block is the run-down two-flat occupied by Mrs. Reeves, whose alcoholic husband died of a heart attack two decades ago, and whose son Stew Pot terrorized the neighborhood during his teenage years before being imprisoned for the burglary and sexual assault of a North Side white woman.
The inciting incident in Bedrock Faith is Stew Pot's return to Parkland. In prison, Stew Pot has become a disciple of an Albino preacher named Brother Crown. He's walking in "The Light," and his new mission is to make sure that his neighbors don't stray from Jesus' teachings. Clearly, hijinks will ensue. Upon his arrival, the unbalanced Stew Pot goes on an "apology tour" of the block. In his teenage years, Stew Pot was a true menace, and he has seriously wronged many of his neighbors. He burned down Mrs. Motley's garage, Erma blames him for the death of her beloved aunt, and he may or may not be Reggie's father.
One morning, Stew Pot arrives on Mrs. Motley's doorstep asking to borrow a Bible, and she can't refuse him. After that, they become something like friends, or mentor and mentee, at least in Stew Pot's eyes. Next, Stew Pot wins Erma over by shoveling her sidewalk. Up until this point in the novel, Stew Pot seems like a lost puppy dog, or an overgrown child. But things take a turn when he becomes infatuated and follows Erma to the North Side. He observes her leaving a restaurant and is shocked to find that her date is a woman.
After that, Stew Pot attempts to set himself up as something like the moral center in Parkland. He sets up camp outside Erma's house, denounces her as a "Lesbianite," and doesn't have too much trouble running her out of town. In the ensuing months, Stew Pot sets his sites on each of his neighbors, one after the other. First, Stew Pot takes umbrage with Mrs. Hicks' "Christmas in July" celebration by shooting out her Christmas lights with a BB gun, and when Mrs. Hicks attempts to confront him she becomes so terrified by Stew Pot's pit bull "John the Baptist" that she takes a long detour home when walking her own dog. The July weather causes her to have a heat stroke, and she eventually dies. Mr. Davenport is the next neighbor who tries to stand up to Stew Pot, but he is promptly exposed as an adulterer whose daughter is looking forward to college so that she can go out drinking unsupervised and sleep with whomever she wants. The Davenports promptly leave town in shame. Even Mrs. Motley and Mr. McTeer come under Stew Pot's scrutiny because he suspects that their relationship is "improper."
Eventually, all of Parkland unites against Stew Pot. Poor "John the Baptist" is run over in the street. Stew Pot's front lawn is the scene of an angry protest, and someone even attempts to burn the Reeves' house down. All of this eventually pushes Stew Pot over the edge.
My only reservation about the novel's resolution is that I thought throughout that Stew was basically a very immature man who was looking for peace. Taken at face value, though, the end of the novel indicates that this was a story about a psychopath all along, which, while entertaining, might not be quite as interesting as the novel I thought I was reading for the first 400 pages. But maybe immaturity and psychopathy aren't quite mutually exclusive, and maybe there's a sly political statement embedded in Stew Pot's fate. In the end, the book's last few chapters are touching and unforgettable even without the scene-stealing Stew Pot, and the novel's final, lasting images are of Parkland itself, which is certainly Mr. May's finest creation. Bedrock Faith is an entertaining and heartfelt novel, and it provides an important look at at a side of Chicago that is under-represented in today's literary fiction.
Out of 10: 9
N.B.: Eric Charles May has two Chicago events scheduled in the coming weeks. He'll be at 57th Street Books on Saturday February 15th at 3:00 PM, and he'll be at Powell's Books on Halsted on Saturday March eighth at 5:00 PM. It's well worth your time to stop by and have him sign your copy.