South Side Blues
47th Street Black
Sunday, 27 May 2003
Although Bayo Ojikutu’s debut novel, 47th Street Black, is suffused with good writing, the novel itself is poorly structured and the characters are never fleshed out beyond the stereotypical. The problem with this novel about the rise and fall of two gangsters from Chicago’s South Side is that Ojikutu’s narrative is not dramatic: the author presents us a rather familiar gangster story, but he does little to distort the recognizable in order to give us access to anything new.
The novel is divided into seven sections, including a prologue. The narrative is presented in the first person voices of the protagonists Mookie King and J. C. Rose and it covers a time period of roughly seventeen years, 1966-1983. Ojikutu, who is 31 and grew up on South Side and in the southern suburbs, alternates the narrator’s work beginning with J. C. in section one and ending with Mookie and J. C. narratiing in section six. This is the author’s primary structural misstep because J. C.’s is the more compelling voice, vision, and storyline. The author is drawn to the dynamics of the friendship between the protagonists as they come of age in the Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Uninspired by the prospects afforded by high school education or even the promise of the Civil Rights Movement, Mookie and J. C. decide to drop out to shoot craps and play stickball. While playing stickball in an alley, Mookie and J. C. stubble across the corpse of Baptiste, a “collection agent” for a local boss Tommy Ricci and his captain, Salvie Fuoco. Ostensibly using this discovery as leverage, the two teenagers present themselves to these Italian bosses as potentially loyal workers and pry their way into the neighborhood racquet, becoming low-level agents and enforcers for the Mob. Ojikutu moves the reader in quick succession through the latter part of the 1960s, pointing out the rise of Mookie and J. C and their acquisition of material prizes and tangible power of the low-level gangster: red Thunderbirds, silk shirts, Stacy Adams lace-ups, and golden Cadillacs. The novel also moves in a rather predictable arc toward its vengeful end – there are the betrayals, the power moves, the assassinations, the RICO charges, a funeral, and a final gun battle. These plot points propel the novel. However, the author does not create the requisite tensions that propel the characters.
In fact, Ojikutu leaves readers wanting and unsatisfied when they attempt to find the moral and philosophical center of the novel. As for this search, readers will be left disconcerted. Take, for instance, the eponymous character, 47th Street Black. He is presented as a street-wise philosopher, regaling Mookie and J. C. with sagacious aphorisms about power and success. However, Black’s importance to the novel’s storyline is at best murky. Whatever 47th Street Black is supposed to represent cannot be tracked. Worse yet, this character never rises above cliché; he is little more than a very minor version of “Da Mayor” from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing or the Amiri Baraka’s street griot in Warren Beatty’s Bullworth.
This characterization is actually emblematic of a larger problem: the novel lacks relevance. This problem is exacerbated by the author’s inconsistent use of American history. Ojikutu’s narrative of the South Side life is under girded by some sense of the historical reality of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the south into the industrial urban centers of the northern Midwest – this is a strong, smart move for a realist novelist. However, only the faintest traces of the major historical events that followed the migration are available in the novel. In the thoughts, action, and speech of the characters the social ramifications of the Movement and King, Malcolm X and Black Power, Viet Nam, the blazing inner city summers, the 1968 Democratic Convention, are barely audible or left untouched. It’s not enough to say as Mookie does that “King got clipped” and do any justice to Chicago, let alone the larger social circumstances in the1960s.
Certainly one of Ojikutu’s working themes is that the twenty-odd blocks of Kenwood-Oakland represents a circumscribed world, a prison without any hope of escape. Fine enough. However, are we to believe that black male high school dropouts could have avoided the draft? Could they have ignored so much of politics of race and cultural change happening around them? According to the author’s character construction, Mookie and J. C. find few of these circumstances relevant. Ojikutu’s refusal to embed his characters into a resonant historical setting is debilitating because the play between the character motivations and the cultural circumstances could have created the drama, the moral or philosophical dilemmas, that the novel sorely lacks.
The author does want his protagonists to be analytical and self-aware. Ojikutu’s strong prose is at its best when he is trying to illustrate the psychological concerns of Mookie and J. C. For instance, Mookie is haunted throughout the novel by a local jazz musician’s version of John Coltrane’s “Alabama.” Within the song, in its angular blues structure, Mookie sees
47th Street’s wanderers . . . lost on the strip no more, not even in the city. The souls is out in a forest, green and dark and muddy, a marsh maybe. And they got dirty faces, like they fell along the way, so dirty I can barely see them against the night and these trees. At least till the light comes, light like fire in the sky. The souls get to runnin, not to the light . . . . they run away from it, scared. More lights appear with the first, chasin the wanderers deeper into the marsh. Can’t tell whether these lights just chasin for the sport of it, or if they tryin to catch these fools; least I can’t tell till the first sets the slowest muddy coon on fire. I look up to see his soul in the sky, twistin in flames. I only know I’m runnin with the wanderers when I smell and hear more slow coons burnin around me, so I run faster. The sax blower’s song stops as heat touches the end of me. (91)
Mookie’s vision dwells on the distinctly tragic end of the blues’ tragi-comic dialectic. However, it is also imbued with a hope for escape from the hellish environment. But the dictates of the Ojikutu’s narrative train call for a more predictable turn.
It’s not Mookie but J. C. who “escapes” the South Side when he is sent to prison on a murder conviction. J. C.’s resentments about gangster life bubble up when he realizes that 47th Street and the penitentiary in Decatur are both nasty: “[O]n the street, filth hid behind gold chains, haberdashery, fancy clothes, and loot, creeping out when you weren’t paying it mind. But in Decatur, there was nothing for filth to hide behind, so it crawled around, surrounded and bit – ate – you whenever it got ready to” (194). As J. C. describes his process of moral questioning and self-analysis, one feels that this is the beginning of change, that character might move past the pathologies of gangster philosophy. But this is a tease and the intensity is quickly defused. These flights of poetic illumination and critical realization are never allowed to create the supple tension needed to surprise the reader with the distortion of the familiar. Unfortunately, they almost always succumb to the imperatives of violence.
Ojikutu’s protagonists think of life as a loser’s gamble – the cards read death and ruin, never escape or revitalization for themselves or the neighborhood. By the novel’s midpoint the reader realizes that the protagonists will not overcome their criminal impulses for they rarely fight themselves. Their moral compasses cannot lead them out of the traps of gangsterism. Mookie and J. C. are framed by a rotten morality – get or get got, live and let die, what goes around comes around – it is a relativism that barely survives its utterance. One might suggest that this is the author’s point: gangster relativism is dangerous. However, Ojikutu is trying something smarter and harder; he is trying to describe something sensitive and humane in the midst of a wasteland. The project fails, not for the attempt, but because the author never manages to present the complexity of protagonists’ motivations and desires.
Ojikutu acknowledges that Martin Scorsese’s films have influenced his writing. 47th Street Black might be read as a revision of Good Fellas with black protagonists. But what the author has not learned from Scorsese is that fiction, cinematic or literary, works through the derangment of familiar circumstance, that dramatic tension arises by opposing psychological extremes within or between characters.
With sharper editing 47th Street Black could have been a stronger, smarter critique of gangster sensibilities and the historical plight of Chicago’s South Side framed by the hard boiled story of young black gangsters trying to tangle with economics of rage and power. Instead, Ojikutu’s novel is made up of paradoxes. The author has a great ear for the linguistic idioms of the Italian and black gangsters, but he has given his resonant prose over to characters who are not equal to the complexity of the writing.