Bob Hartley’s second novel, North and Central, is a beer-stained memorial to working-class Chicago circa 1978. But while there’s a lot of love here for a blue-collar bar culture that’s since largely vanished, this smart, gripping crime novel has no place for nostalgia. It’s a tough-minded 240 pages whose protagonist and narrator, Andy, would fit right into a classic film noir.
The neighborhood tavern Andy inherited from his parents fills nightly with workers from the Zenith plant, nurses and cops, plus regulars like spaced-out barroom philosopher Railroad Bob, and the elderly drunks whom Andy calls The Skeletons. At 35, Andy is lonely and bitter; when he can, he surreptitiously meets up with his high school girlfriend, Rita, who (in)conveniently is married to his lifelong best friend, a city cop named Jerry.
To call Jerry a corrupt cop is, in North and Central, virtually redundant; in fact, this concrete jungle is a world where everyone above age 10 is either on the take or a sucker. (Even cockroaches, Andy observes, are merely taking their cut.) Rita talks Andy into hiring her ex-con brother Fatboy, a junkie in recovery, as bar help. Then Andy — seeing Zenith layoffs as an ill omen for his own economic future — decides to start organizing criminal endeavors of his own. (He’s got another personal motive too, one I won’t divulge here.)
Hartley lives in Pittsburgh but grew up in Chicago, and writes with authority about these characters, people with nicknames like “Dogbreath.” Between some chapters he includes fictional news articles chronicling a litany of Windy City murders (all are bylined “James Thompson,” perhaps to honor the late crime novelist). But while life in North and Central can be unforgiving, there’s tenderness here, too, for instance in the portrait of Andy’s relationship with Rita. And the novel is quite funny at times, without relinquishing toughness. In one scene, a “straight” cop whom Andy believes is about to nail him for stolen electronics instead merely grabs a VCR from the pile. “Wife’s been beggin’ for a nice Christmas present,” he tells Andy. “If it’d been just TVs,” Andy narrates, “he probably would have busted me, but VCRs were new and expensive. Everybody wanted one.”
North and Central ($15.99) is published by Chicago-based Tortoise Books. Combining sharply observed characters with a fast-paced narrative, it’s a strong summer read, if rather on the dark side.