North and Central by Bob Hartley follows Andy, a thirty-five-year-old bartender on Chicago’s West Side in the late 1970s. He has spent years watching the neighborhood fall into decline and serving drinks to the city’s corrupt cops. At the start of the novel, Andy begins to question how long the city will survive with the current crime rates — which are steadily increasing as the city steadily declines. Desperate and thinking is life is already over, Andy decides to become a criminal himself.
With his future in the hands of Huntington’s disease, a genetic disease that results in the death of one’s brain cells, Andy decides that he doesn’t want his life to end the way his father’s did — suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage with his wife. He wants to be somewhere clean, surrounded by people who care and are “paid enough money” to properly take care of him. To do this, he knows, he needs money, and what better way to make a quick buck in the city than to sell stolen merchandise from the basement of his bar?
Having zero experience with “free procurement”, Andy recruits Fatboy, the ex-dope addict working in Andy’s bar; he also recruits Jerry and the Reverend, two of the city’s most corrupt cops. The four start by stealing TVs and VCRs from a Sears warehouse, and Andy sells them to the city’s cops and the workers from the nearby Zenith factory. After a few warehouse robberies, they move to one big, final heist — a currency exchange robbery of over $150,000. The hope is that, by dividing the cash equally between the four of them, their troubles will be over. Unfortunately, after the heist, their troubles truly begin.
North and Central opens with Andy explaining that he is “a balding thirty-five-year-old with a belly and heel spurs” and he sets that scene with very little dialogue. Unfortunately, that trend continues throughout the course of the novel — paragraph upon paragraph upon paragraph of description with little to no dialogue incorporated; when dialogue is included, there is a lot of swearing — almost everyone drops the f-bomb multiple times in one scene — and there are times that it seems excessive and it comes across feeling as thought Hartley is trying a little too hard to make his characters fit into the time period. With that being said, Hartley manages to accurately depict Andy, Fatboy, Jerry, and the Reverend in various scenes throughout the novel, particularly when the four of them embark on their first heist at the Sears warehouse. In five brief lines, Hartley illustrates Andy’s anxieties about the entire situation: “I remember the rumbling of the carts, and the jumping of the beam./I remember Jerry behind me bumping his cart against the back of my legs and laughing./ I remember hearing myself mumble, but not knowing what I said./Then, over and over, I remember whispering to myself to shut up. But I couldn’t.” In just these few lines (though there are a bit more to follow), we are shown the results of what can only be defined as an adrenaline rush: he is unable to remember the little details of the heist — they are a blur — but he remembers the big moments.
Throughout the course of North and Central, Hartley manages to hit on some heavy topics including child abuse, suicide, homosexuality, and police brutality. He makes an impact in only a few lines, short flashbacks told by the characters most impacted by these things. Harley touches on child abuse through a story told by Fatboy while he and Andy are sitting in Fatboy’s apartment; Fatboy asks Andy if he’s “ever been hit with a cat-o-nine tails?” When Andy says that he hasn’t, Fatboy tells him about his father: “The fucker never woke us up. We’d be in a deep sleep. The kind you only know as a kid. The leather would cut into us. We’d scream and jump from one side of our beds to the other.” Beyond this, Hartley comes back and touches on those topics throughout the rest of the novel.
These hard-hitting, heavy topics are the strongest parts of Hartley’s novel; the overall development of the characters fell flat. As I was reading, I wanted more from Andy, Jerry, Fatboy, and the Reverend — even Rita, Jerry’s wife and Andy’s lover, is a one-dimensional and flat character. Additionally, there were pieces of the novel that felt irrelevant and disconnected to the overall arc of Andy’s story. There is the sporadic weaving of Mrs. Connolly and her search for her son who has been missing for a little more than a decade. Her story is mentioned a few times but it never comes to an end which made me question why it was included. Was it just another way for Hartley to show the corruption and crime flowing through and over-taking the entire city.
It’s clear what Hartley wants readers to get from North and Central — a novel that depicts the corruption taking over 1970s Chicago. Despite the coarse language and the rough edges, there is substance to Hartley’s novel.