Gritty is the first word that comes to mind reading this debut novel, followed by tough, tawdry, sad and, finally, honest. There’s nothing pretty in the 1960s, Chicago west side Irish neighborhood where the story takes place. The politicians are crooked, the police brutal and the priest hypocritical. And nothing pleasant about life in the O’Day household. Mom’s dead and Dad’s a drunk – not the soft-eyed tippler who sits on the corner stool and croons “Danny Boy” with a sweet Irish lilt to his voice. Junior is a nasty, pathetic boozer whose kids are left to care for him, fend for themselves and steal to eat.
Tommy’s the mean, crazy older brother. Hardened by a year in reform school, he casts hate-filled eyes on everyone and everything. Following him there’s Jacky — smart and bookish, like his Mom, the one who’s always picking up the pieces and doing Tommy’s bidding even when he knows he shouldn’t. Paired up with cousin Hippo whose dilapidated wreck of a car provides mobility, the three young hoodlums cruise city streets and alleys looking for trouble.
Jacky’s struggle to survive his brother’s negative influence is framed between two events: the appearance of the first black family to move into the neighborhood and a botched attempt at robbing the tavern owned by the local resident mean cop. When Jacky stumbles on a trio of old black and white photos, he catches a heartbreaking glimpse of a life that has long since disappeared into the realm of dreams and memories of his mother. Desperate to escape the downward spiral that is his family and yet loyal to his no-good father and brother, Jacky narrates the story in language that is brisk and often crude.
The question at the core of Following Tommy: Can Jacky find his own way or is he fated to continue trailing his sibling to certain doom? In a book that sprinkles the soot of the city on your sleeve, Hartley leaves you guessing to the end.