A Comic Coming-of-Age Novel Laced With Social Commentary

A Comic Coming-of-Age Novel Laced With Social Commentary

By Gabriel Bump

It’s an elusive and risky thing to attempt in a literary work: to be funny — especially if you’re writing about sad things like trauma and loss. It’s the rare book that can achieve an appropriate balance between heaviness and levity, and it’s my favorite kind of novel. In his debut, “Everywhere You Don’t Belong,” Gabriel Bump pulls this off not just generously but seemingly without effort. This is a comically dark coming-of-age story about growing up on the South Side of Chicago, but it’s also social commentary at its finest, woven seamlessly into the work, never self-righteous or preachy.

The book follows a young boy named Claude from South Shore as he copes with being abandoned by both parents, left to be raised by his grandmother and her friend Paul. Bump infuses these childhood sections with an aching, tender innocence, as when his dad gives 5-year-old Claude a beer, kicking off a Thanksgiving food fight, adults flinging mashed potatoes and howling with laughter. Just when the prose teeters on the edge of sentimentality, though, he pulls it back with humor. Following the revelation that Claude’s mom and dad left him within one day of each other, that “neither left a note or kiss goodbye,” Paul puts a cap on the pathos with the same dismissive quip Grandma used after witnessing a senseless fistfight between her son-in-law and another man: “That’s enough culture for one day.”

Propelling the emotional intensity is the novel’s pace. Bump’s short chapters draw us in quickly, urgently, like: Come hear this. Beginning with Claude’s childhood, the time-skipping narrative carries us briskly through the years, until suddenly he’s in high school, facing an attack that lands him in the hospital. Claude’s best friend moves away. (“‘All this craziness,’ Jonah’s mom said. ‘This isn’t good for raising kids.’”) A gang called the Redbelters sells drugs and guns to neighborhood youth, and stages riots in which “we civilians” are caught in the crossfire between the equally bloody-handed gang members and the cops.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of February. See the full list. ]

Amid all this chaos is a love story, plain and simple. From Claude’s first encounter with his pigtailed classmate Janice, we’re expected to trust the everlasting strength of their bond, without much explanation. And the truth is we don’t need it: Their intimacy is built in the silences, like the one that ensues the first time Janice calls him cute. “I choked on nothing, felt my heart trip a few times. … I wanted to call her beautiful,” Claude says. Instead, “I stammered into her face, spit some, choked on nothing, coughed, and spit some more.” Claude never gets any smoother, and he’s all the more charming for it.

If I had any problem with the book, it was logistical, related to certain plot points inserted seemingly for convenience, but without organic explanation, or even a simple acknowledgment from our narrator. This kind of quibble is both big and small. It bothers because it pushes the general suspension of disbelief too far, but thankfully the moment is brief. Despite this narrative not-so-sleight of hand, Bump’s ending still manages to be unexpected and unromantic, while containing so much love and hope.

It would be a mistake to think of this book as a political one — one about the police, or gang violence, about being black in America. Such language is a legacy of the white male voice (his dominance ever diminishing, one hopes) who believes there is such a thing as an apolitical novel, a neutral position, in this country and climate. Above all this book is personal: Bump’s meditation on belonging and not belonging, where or with whom, how love is a way home no matter where you are, is handled so beautifully that you don’t know he’s hypnotized you until he’s done. Most funny things are funny because they’re real, this book included. I mean real, here, as something distinct from realism; his characters feel true to their environment in ways only an author who has known people like this, has lived a life at least adjacent to this one, could write. Amid ambient contemporary questions about cultural appropriation, I believe in the power of imagination, that you aren’t required to have lived everything you write about. That said, readers of color know a fake — on the page, in the language — when we see one. I don’t know the life Gabriel Bump has lived, if it actually resembled Claude’s. But the overwhelming impression of this novel — from the cheap weed smoked out of lunchroom apples to Claude’s reluctant “diversity” assignment for his college paper, which ends up being “all about death and fixing injustice” — is that it’s genuine.

There’s something big (and yet stifled) happening in the publishing world now, a reckoning with who has the right to write what when it comes to fiction. My personal stance on writing fiction across racial divides is that you better have a pretty damn good reason to do it, and it better not sound even a little bit altruistic. I also believe we as readers have a responsibility to not only call out problematic examples, but also to honor those doing it right, those of any color who are writing about underrepresented or misrepresented communities, and doing the best of what fiction can do at the same time. Gabriel Bump is doing that, has done that. And “that’s enough culture for one day.”

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