Chicago is full of tough neighborhoods, and the area around North and Central is no exception. Hartley’s poignant novel is set in the mid 1970s when everything seems to be going wrong for the working-class folks who live there. Zenith, the largest employer, is closing up shop. As jobs vanish, hope dims and business slows at the corner tavern that’s owned and operated by Andy, the second-generation bar-keep whose father taught him how to keep two sets of books – the true ledgers and the one for the IRS.
Andy narrates the story and keeps a watchful eye on the regulars who show up like clockwork. They come for a shot and beer, for a friendly ear, for a glimmer of good news to brighten their dreary days. Hartley fills the dive at North and Central, his second novel, with a colorful cast of characters. There’s Fatboy, Gin and Tonic Doc, Old Man Skeleton, Railroad Bob, Dog Breath, and Stocking. They squabble, swear, and stick together, mostly. There’s also the crooked cops and Rita, the girl Andy should have married but didn’t, and Andy’s boyhood friend Jerry, who did.
Andy’s love for Rita and his loyalty to Jerry, as well as his own tragic circumstances, bind the three together and inexorably move them toward disaster. This is a story about tough people facing hard times and struggling to survive when the odds are against them and the chips are down. It’s a story that resonates for the North and Central neighborhoods that continue to dot the city and the rest of the nation.