The author of the bestselling memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler presents a profound debut novel -- in the tradition of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities and Zadie Smith's White Teeth -- that captures the dynamics of class and race in today's urban integrated communities.
Nathan McCall's novel, Them, tells a compelling story set in a downtown Atlanta neighborhood known for its main street, Auburn Avenue, which once was regarded as the "richest Negro street in the world."
The story centers around Barlowe Reed, a single, forty-something African American who rents a ramshackle house on Randolph Street, just a stone's throw from the historic birth home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Barlowe, who works as a printer, otherwise passes the time reading and hanging out with other men at the corner store. He shares his home and loner existence with a streetwise, twentysomething nephew who is struggling to get his troubled life back on track.
When Sean and Sandy Gilmore, a young white couple, move in next door, Barlowe and Sandy develop a reluctant, complex friendship as they hold probing -- often frustrating -- conversations over the backyard fence.
Members of both households, and their neighbors as well, try to go about their business, tending to their homes and jobs. However, fear and suspicion build -- and clashes ensue -- with each passing day, as more and more new whites move in and make changes and once familiar people and places disappear.
Using a blend of superbly developed characters in a story that captures the essence of this country's struggles with the unsettling realities of gentrification, McCall has produced a truly great American novel.
Questions and Topics for Discussion 1. Discuss the book's title. What is its meaning? How is the word "them" used throughout the novel, and in what ways does its significance change? 2. This book is divided into three parts. Why do you think Nathan McCall chose this structure? 3. Though their differences are obvious, what characteristics do Sandy and Barlowe share? In spite of different worldviews that complicate their relationship, why do you think these two are ultimately able to bond? 4. "If Barlowe could have assembled the words that reflected his knowing, he might have said something like this: 'Between two people with perceptions shaped by realities as alien as ours, some things really are inscrutable; one person's truths can transcend another's language, rendering them utterly incapable of seeing eye to eye'" (p. 225). What does this mean? Do you agree? 5. Though the overarching conflict of the novel may be between the blacks and the whites who inhabit the Old Fourth Ward, some discord emerges within each race as well. In what instances do stereotypes inspire misunderstandings among residents of the same race? 6. Were you surprised to discover that Sean turned The Hawk in to the police? Do you think his action was justified? 7. Though Viola's official cause of death was liver failure, people in the neighborhood assumed she died of heartbreak after The Hawk mysteriously disappeared. Do you believe Sean is therefore implicated in Viola's death? 8. Contrast and compare how Sean and Barlowe each dealt with the occasional intrusions of Viola and The Hawk. Would you characterize Viola's death as a sad yet ultimately necessary result of gentrification, or a needless tragedy set in motion when the neighborhood's balance is thrown off kilter? 9. Although Sean and Sandy are obviously not welcome in the neighborhood, and in spite of several dangerous personal attacks, Sandy resists Sean's pressure to leave the Old Fourth Ward. Do you think her resolve is admirable or foolish? Is she to blame for what happens to Sean in the novel's violent climax? 10. In what ways does the author make statements about black self-sufficiency? 11. The Gilmores ultimately leave the Old Fourth Ward. Were there any instances throughout the novel when you believed that they would establish a happy life there? 12. Though they didn't intend to make a negative impact on the neighborhood, the Gilmores, like other whites, certainly did. Were there ways in which their presence produced positive results? 13. Do you think that, in leaving the neighborhood, the Smiths helped resolve a personal dilemma? Did they inadvertently help advance the process of gentrification? 14. Throughout the novel, Barlowe struggles with the feeling of "not knowing how to live" (p. #83). What does this mean? Are there other characters who deal with similar internal conflict? 15. Discuss Barlowe's transformation throughout the novel. What events and relationships inspire changes in his feelings, reactions, and goals? What ultimately enables him to feel at peace with himself by the end of book? 16. The instances in the book that involve segregated meetings or gatherings among ward residents primarily result in each group's strengthened dedication to remaining segregated. Do you think those actions symbolize continued racial divisions in this country? If so, how? 17. Is the issue of gentrification about race or class? 18. In the story, Barlowe shares this quote with Sandy: "They say liberals conduct their lynchins from shorter trees" (p. #206). What do you suppose that means? What is it's significance to the story? 19. How is it possible that in Atlanta, a city with an African American mayor, blacks in neighborhoods such as the Old Fourth Ward are powerless to hold off encroachment on their communities? 20. How might Barlowe's challenges in figuring out "how to live" have affected his ability to find fulfilling relationships with women? 21. What, if any, symbolic significance do you see in Tyrone's pigeons? Enhance Your Book Club 1. Research the history of Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward. Share your findings with the group. 2. Think about the social dynamic and ethnic makeup of your neighborhood. If it is at all homogenous, how would current residents react if people of other races or social classes moved in? If your neighborhood is racially or economically diverse, how is the social dynamic affected by that diversity? Share your opinions and feelings with the group. 3. Read Nathan McCall's Makes Me Wanna Holler as a companion text. In what ways might McCall's personal story have inspired Them?
Nathan McCall, author of Makes Me Wanna Holler, has worked as a journalist for The Washington Post. Currently, he teaches in the African American Studies Department at Emory University and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
"Nathan McCall's debut novel, Them, a mirror of our time and souls, is awesome and destined to become a contemporary classic." -- Eric Jerome Dickey, New York Times bestselling author
"What should we write about in our complex and changing world? And how? These are the questions that a writer constantly asks....Nathan McCall masterfully provides us with an answer. His novel could be taken as a model for modern writing." -- Maryse Condé,award-winning author of The Story of the Cannibal Woman
"Them is a character-driven, insightful novel that gives readers an entertaining and balanced glance at gentrification. Nathan McCall has done a brilliant job of showcasing his talent, while at the same time showing his compassion for human nature." -- Zane, New York Times bestselling author of Afterburn
"Nathan McCall's honesty and insight captivated the nation in Makes Me Wanna Holler, and those qualities drive his sure-handed leap to fiction in McCall's beautifully written first novel,Them. With painstaking balance and vivid characters both black and white, Them is a gripping and timely dispatch from the unfolding story of race relations in America. Nathan McCall is a national treasure." -- Tananarive Due, American Book Award-winning author of Joplin's Ghost and Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights
"Complex and flawed characters weave a story that tests our own contradictory feelings about gentrification and racial and class bias. A compelling read." -- Erica Simone Turnipseed, author of A Love Noire, Hunger, and the upcoming My Name Is Zanzibar