With the November 2007 publication of Them, McCall makes his fiction debut with a timely and penetrating story poised to generate the same seismic cultural impact as his nonfiction work. In Them (Atria Books; $25.00; Hardcover), he tackles the complex interplay of class, race and economics in today’s urban America.
Them tells the story of Barlowe Reed, a single, forty-something African American whose attempt to buy the rundown house he rents in an historic black neighborhood is confounded by the sudden encroachment of whites abandoning the suburbs for the inner city. When a white couple moves in next door, Barlowe develops a reluctant, complex friendship with Sandy Gilmore, the woman of the house, as they hold probing – and often frustrating – conversations over the backyard fence that Sandy’s husband has installed to impose distance and ensure safety.
Set in Atlanta, Ga., the story centers around a neighborhood called The Old Fourth Ward, made famous as the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., and once the center of the civil rights movement. As more whites move into the neighborhood over time, conflict ensues. Rather than embracing King’s cherished principles of racial harmony, blacks and whites are drawn into wrenching neighborhood power struggles as they wrestle with alien world-views and the unsettling realities of gentrification.
In the midst of those struggles, Barlowe and Sandy are forced to re-examine their own long-held racial assumptions. Ultimately, they each wind up staking out positions that strain Sandy’s marriage and, increasingly, brings Barlowe into conflict with black neighbors he once counted as friends.
The conflict comes to a head as whites increasingly gain control of the community and blacks lament the transformation of the neighborhood that was once home to the “richest Negro street in the world.”
Them spotlights a vital social issue while delivering a memorable page-turner, reaffirming Nathan McCall’s status as an important voice and establishing him as an immensely gifted novelist.
The Georgia Center for the Book, the Writer’s Institute of Georgia Perimeter College and the Chattahoochee Review recently nominated Them as one of 10 finalists for the 2008 Townsend Prize. Every other year a board of judges awards the Townsend Prize for Fiction to an outstanding novel or short-story collection published by a Georgia writer during the past two years. The award is named for Jim Townsend, the founding editor of Atlanta magazine, and an early mentor to such Atlanta writers as Pat Conroy, Terry Kay, Bill Diehl, and Anne Rivers Siddons. The Townsend Prize consists of a $2,000 award and a silver tray of commemoration.