The Old Neighborhood, written by Bill Hillmann and published by Curbside Splendor, is a fictitious memoir written from the point-of-view of Joe, a boy living in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood in an era of racially-motivated gang violence. Joe’s older brother, Lil Pat, is one of the heads of the TJOs, the gang that runs the old neighborhood, and Joe’s social circles are well on their way to joining the fight too, though Joe’s other older brothers, Rich and Blake, manage to stay out of the way. Nonetheless, all of them are affected by the world they live in, including Joe’s adoptive sisters, Jan and Rose, and it isn’t long before violence grips every member of Joe’s family during the coming storm. The worst blow of all comes when Lil Pat takes the thug life too far and heroin works its way into his lifestyle. The result? He’s put away and the rest of the TJOs look to Joe to step up. After all, Rich is too volatile for friends and Blake is trying to maintain a reasonable grade-point average to stay in a college he barely got into. But Joe’s not alone–his crew steps up too: Ryan, the brother of another lead TJO, and Angel, a young playboy with a twisted sense of humor, both join Joe as they start selling marijuana and making stands against other north side gangs. But as Joe falls in love and discovers an interest in particle physics, he begins to realize that the thug life was not what Lil Pat wished for him after all.
I got this book courtesy of our friends at Curbside Splendor, though I’ve got history with Mr. Hillmann. The first literary reading I ever attended was hosted by Bill–the Windy City Story Slam, with guest reader Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting. It wasn’t long before I got to hear all about their relationship–Hillmann, Irvine Welsh, and Don DeGrazia, author of American Skin, used to get into bar fights with cops, or so I heard. Who can tell with writers? Either way, while studying under DeGrazia and becoming a regular attendee at The Windy City Story Slam, I got to learn a lot about Bill and his escapades. It wasn’t long before I stepped up to the plate and Bill put me on Windy City Story Slam’s bill.
(Probably the first time I appeared on a poster.)
Andersonville, Edge Water, Bryn Mawr–whatever you want to call it–I lived there for 22 months, no doubt on the same block as Joe and other characters of this novel. The only difference is, while Joe is in the streets battling back rival gangs, I saw a lot of young professionals starting their first families and college youths still trying to get drunk off Pabst Blue Ribbon and two-dollar bottles of wine from Trader Joe’s. Gentrification, I guess? It wasn’t like the neighborhood was devoid of trouble–there were a couple of low-rent housing apartment buildings and homeless guys hanging around outside of the bodega trying to bogart my cigarettes. The experience I remember most is a neighbor in my own apartment building–his name was Don, a young chef, and we talked restaurants while we smoked cigarettes outside of the building. One afternoon, Don approached me with a twitch in his eye. He told me that he had a dream where the grim reaper followed him down the street and then, according to Don, raped him. But it only began as rape and became love-making. As uncomfortable as I felt, I didn’t want to be a dick–so I asked him what the grim reaper looked like. He unlocked the door to the building and said, “You don’t know?” The twitch in his eye strobed to a silent rhythm as he grinned with years of embedded hurt. Then he slammed the door in my face. Unsettling, sure, but I’d seen that behavior before. Back in college, I had a roommate who was a recovering heroin addict. The behavior, denoted by paranoia, social ineptitude, and broken motor functions was all too familiar. When I saw Don again, he apologized for slamming the door in my face, but made it clear that he didn’t trust me. He pointed to a hoodie I wore, with the Legend of Zelda logo on the breast, and said that I wore symbols of the enemy. He said he and his friend built a time machine to fight the enemy, a time machine in their minds, and using their time machine, their whole community can fight the enemy. I decided then that I needed to move out. That’s why I now live in Pilsen now.
(Edgewater, courtesy of choosechicago.com.)
Of course, Joe’s interpretation of the neighborhood weighs heavily enough on himself, what with heroin coming into the neighborhood and danger lurking around every corner. Hillmann does a fantastic job of capturing Joe’s fear as he runs around the neighborhood, dropping a new dread or trouble on Joe’s lap with each new chapter. From problems as meager to cheating on his girlfriend to issues as dangerous as wondering why his sister’s running with a rival gang to thoughts so profound as questioning the meaning of life through science, Joe’s fears are all captured in the serious, gritty tone captured in the colloquial speech and world-building tangents. We closely follow Joe’s thoughts because we’re in his head, so we feel what he feels as Hillmann gives a physical description to the hurt of Joe’s anxiety. It’s these descriptions, paired with the ambiguity of what actually waits around the corner, that makes this novel a relentless bulldozer on the audience’s emotions. Even Joe’s nightmares distinguish this book among others in the way it continually thrashes its main character–in these horror fantasies, the Assyrian (a young man that Joe watched die at his brother’s hands) commands a monster composed of Joe’s grotesque imagination that aims to hunt and devour everyone that Joe cares about–the monster, however, is the neighborhood and the Assyrian is the vengeful ghost of Joe’s conscience and the neighborhood’s victims. This personification comes in tandem with Joe’s own physical ache resulting from his anxiety and not only compels the audience into Joe’s emotional state, but the physical state that results. And no matter where Joe goes, a new torture awaits him.
Bill Hillmann, like myself, also worked for Criminal Class Press. He was the talent manager and, upon joining as an intern before becoming the publicist, I was given a very unusual request by Bill. Plaster-casting my cock, live and on stage. You see, I made quite a name for myself in the literary community by talking about my dick. Legendary, they said, though whether that’s in reference to my audacity or the size of my wang, who knew? Either way, Bill caught wind of it and asked me to join the stage and be the first person to get a plaster-cast mold of his dick made before a live audience. If it’s half-as-bad as I remember it, it’s probably not worth recording here, but I never said no to a challenge–it was done by Jo-Jo Baby, a local artist who sculpts statues out of plaster-cast cock moldings, and I was given a bathrobe and a screen. While the molding happened, Bill set up a microphone so I could answer questions by the packed Viaduct Theater while Jo-Jo put a cool, thick lather on my joint. I only had one problem–stage fright. I could answer the questions just fine, but I couldn’t get hard. One thing that I failed to mention in my stories is that I’m a “grower” and not a “show-er.” The result was one, tiny penis sculpture–and though I still had fun, and Bill and I built our relationship, I believe I’ll think twice before volunteering to do that again.
(Great fucking idea, Behnam.)
Like myself, Joe is on blast on the regular–though he’s mostly trying to run under the radar, everyone seems to seek him out because of what he represents to the community and his group of friends. With a huge trove of characters, all of whom know Joe all too well, it’s no surprise that he needs someplace to go. For relief, Hillmann invites us into Joe’s memory–times spent with his grandfather on the pier or at the lake with his family. Water represents peace in Hillmann’s piece and it’s these flashbacks that allow us to rest through the chaos of Joe’s dysfunctional community. These flashbacks aren’t just moments of rest, but thematic too–they represent where the story begins and where it ends. Joe’s dreams, like his nightmares, are surreal, and instill a sense of ease as much as his nightmares create one of unrest. Using water as Joe’s safe-haven is especially poetic, considering that his nightmares are inspired by a neighborhood known specifically in the story as “Edgewater.” It’s this juxtaposition that gives the narrative a well-crafted beauty that’s both subtle and deeply meaningful, painting meaning to the drama of Joe’s life. In addition to adding an extra layer to the story, characterizing the neighborhood in Joe’s nightmares as a monster and embodying water in Joe’s dreams gives the reader clues as to what may happen next as he fights to overcome each new painful discovery that awaits him, while still raising the stakes because the allusions are both soft and hard, both scenic and destructive.
I worked with Bill a little while after the plaster-casting on both events for Criminal Class Press and for Windy City Story Slam. With Criminal Class, he and I toured the east coast together and, while I drove the company’s car rental from Chicago to New York, he drove from New York back to Chicago. We split the stage on a number of occasions and sat in on a number of company meetings in an effort to make Criminal Class Press what it eventually became, prior to both of us quitting. After New York, I also did some publicity for Windy City Story Slam–but as the Story Slam faded behind Bill’s own ambitions to become an author, my public relations career slowly ended with my desire to leave the literary community and focus exclusively on finding my own voice as an author. Still, in spite of it, I clutched on to the things Bill told me. He explained in depth that The Windy City Story Slam, his baby, happened as a result of constantly pushing. He explained to me how he could barely fill a small room for that first Story Slam and by the end, he had magnificent theaters packed. He described the importance for a budding author to promote themselves and overcoming fear to face the world through story–I think that’s why I left the community. I just wanted to bring something bigger to the table to promote, although you never know what it is that will draw you back in again.
(Hillmann and Welsh. There’s a duo I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.)
There are things that I took issue with in this novel too–it wasn’t all just grit and poetic irony. In my opinion, the book needed another round of edits. Though mostly stylistic choices, the book uses a lot of sentences composed exclusively of capital letters and redundant punctuation in order to express an extension of volume or push an idea–however, it’s hard to take stylistic decisions like that seriously. It brings too much levity to the dark, gloomy world that Hillmann is attempting to create. The use of colloquial conjunctions doesn’t help either–gonna, wanna, etc. Nor does replacing words like “that” with “dat,” when writing the way Joe speaks as a child. Overall, a lot is lost in the creation of this world with this style and I think the story speaks loudly and clearly enough without manipulating type-face or tongue-and-cheek phonetics to capture the world that they live in. In spite of that though, the story is engaging as hell and if you can allow yourself to look past it, you’ll find a rich, substantial world that both teaches you in great detail about the neighborhood you once called home and pushes you to the edge of your seat.
Though I’ve awaited this for a long time, Bill’s publication with Curbside Splendor brings new life to his career. In all the years I hosted readings, publicized publications, edited manuscripts, or generally struggled in the literary industry, I’ve never met anyone who worked so hard and promoted himself with such enthusiasm to become an author as Bill Hillmann. Reading excerpts from this novel in Criminal Class Review were not enough to inform me about how grand of a novel that this would become and I consider myself privileged to have both worked with Bill and to have read this wonderful piece in its entirety. I look forward to his next work and, with any luck, I hope we get to see Joe and his fucked-up family again. All of the characters of this novel were so well-written and deeply moving that I’ve come to consider them regulars from my own neighborhood, even if I’m not living in Edgewater anymore.
The Riahi Rating:
Other reviews of Curbside Splendor books:
Zero Fade, by Chris L. Terry