Them

Them

by Nathan McCall

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416549161
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: 08/19/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 1,228,178
Product dimensions: 8.06(w) x 5.28(h) x 0.96(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

April 15th, four thirty-six.

Barlowe Reed drove down an Atlanta parkway, heading south toward North Avenue. The car, a battered old Plymouth with sagging pipes, had seen its best days ten years before. Barlowe drove it slowly, like he halfway didn't want to go in the direction he was moving in. He chugged along, a twinge of irritation tugging at him. (It had nothing to do with the young boy riding his bumper.) Barlowe was always annoyed about one thing or another — usually some item he'd read in the paper. The source of this latest vexation, though, was more personal than headlines in the daily paper. Ever since he'd gone downtown that afternoon to pick up his income tax returns, his mood had soured.

Barlowe hated paying taxes. He couldn't explain it in fancy words, but the reasons were clear enough inside his head. Most folks didn't know the half of what the government did with all the tax money it collected, but Barlowe had his suspicions. He figured a lot of that cash financed dirty work: vast conspiracies, domestic and foreign; secret plots and counterplots; greedy, underhanded, fiendish stuff.

He glanced at the tax documents in the seat beside him and the vexation seemed to magnify. When he'd gone into H&R Block that morning, the accountant, a white man dressed sharply in a crisp shirt and tie, had smiled a big smile, like he had produced some financial masterpiece.

Accountants, Barlowe thought now, slugging forward. Charge an arm and a leg for doin nothin.

His taxes couldn't have required heavy lifting, and not for what that accountant charged. Please. He was a printer; an underpaid printer at that. In fact, he was so flat broke he had considered doing his own returns. In the end he decided to pay white folks to assume the risk. Let the government, the almighty Caesar harass them if some decimals and zeroes got mixed all up. Let Caesar go after them — not him.

Barlowe wondered how Caesar would use his money against him this time around. He hated that feeling: not knowing the particulars about such things; giving his hard-earned coins to Caesar, and in the blind.

But what could a man do? You had to render unto Caesar what Caesar claimed as his. Either render or break the law and foolishly deliver yourself into Caesar's hands.

He drove along, mulling Caesar. One day maybe he'd hit the number and get Caesar's foot off his neck.

He slouched down in the seat a little, the top of his bushy head peeking just above the steering wheel. He covered two more city blocks and spotted a car that made him sit up straight. Barlowe couldn't see the driver clear; it was the make of the vehicle that he took notice of. It was a Caddy, a gleaming, bright blue number with shiny rims and whitewalls scrubbed clean as a baby's butt. A Caddy. When it came to hogging the road, Caddy drivers were the worst.

The Caddy pulled out in front of him and settled into a lazy crawl. For several blocks the driver loafed along like the street was named for him. Barlowe pressed in closer, to send a message. The Caddy kept gliding steady, like maybe the driver was masturbating behind the wheel.

There was an American flag sticker pasted, dead center, in the car's back window. Barlowe grunted. "Um." Even more than taxes and Caesar, he hated flags. Ever since the planes struck, the things had sprung up everywhere. Houses, buildings, clothes, you name it; flags were attached some way.

He thought about that now as he trailed the Caddy. The patriot finally flashed a turn signal, swung a sharp right and disappeared.

Barlowe reached the post office and glanced at his watch. That Caddy had thrown his timing off. Every tax season he waited until the final day, April 15, and for good measure he got to his neighborhood post office only minutes before they locked the doors at five o'clock.

Inside, a white man, the supervisor, greeted him with a stale smile. He pointed toward a line that snaked to the cashier counter. People stood limply in a single file, their faces empty or tired or contorted in agony at the idea of having to wait in yet another line, with so much more stuff to be done in life.

Barlowe opted for the shorter line, the one leading to the stamp machines. There were only three people ahead of him, and five minutes left before closing time. He reached the front of the line and scanned the display window. He leaned in close and turned up his nose. Hovering behind him, a tall, spindly fellow in a Hawaiian shirt shifted impatiently on his heels. Barlowe studied the display again, to see if maybe he had missed something.

He hadn't.

American flag stamps lined nearly every row! Only two rows, B-3 and B-4, offered other choices. Of those, one stamp hailed the invention of the Model T. (It may as well have been a flag.)The other stamp featured the bust of a brown-skinned woman. Barlowe didn't recognize the face right off, but the color suited him just fine.

He slid a five-dollar bill into the slot and paused before pressing the selection button. An announcement floated from somewhere off in a corner. "Post office closes in one minute!"

The man behind Barlowe shifted again, making a show of his impatience. Barlowe leaned down closer, concentrating on stamps. The man behind him clucked his tongue and stomped to the longer line.

Seeing the anxious shuffling, the supervisor approached. "Sir. Sir. Is there something I can help you with?" Barlowe nodded at the stamp machine and pointed at the stamp bearing the brown woman's picture. "I wont her."

"The Marian Anderson stamp is sold out, sir. We don't have time to restock the machine. If you want regular stamps for mailing returns, you'll need to get the flags."

"I don't wont flags."

"What?"

"Naw. Don't wont em."

The supervisor frowned as his Homeland Security training came to mind. He gave the customer a good once-over, for information-gathering sake. Barlowe was a big-boned, corn-fed country boy. His face, the shade of cocoa, bore a slightly weathered look, like the faces you see on faded photos of people toiling in cotton fields. With thick, kinky hair, and lips full and broad, he looked a bit like Otis Redding before he'd made it big.

What stood out most about Barlowe, though, were the hands. The hands were rough as sandpaper. The hands were clean but harsh and stained with ink: red, blue, brown, yellow and black ink from the print shop where he worked.

Another postal worker, seeing his supervisor's frustration, sidled over to investigate. "Everythang all right here?" A short, dumpy man with jet-black skin and thick white hair, he brought to mind Uncle Remus storybook tales.

The supervisor turned to Remus and whispered: "This man says he wants stamps, but he won't buy flags."

Barlowe pointed again at the likeness of the brown lady. "I wont her." He nodded toward the supervisor. "He say he ain't got time to get some more."

Remus shrugged. "We bout to close up shop now, partner. You gotta do somethin." He turned and waddled off.

That gruff response wouldn't have seemed so off-putting if the two men hadn't met before. Some time back, Barlowe had come in that same branch to mail a package. He asked for a book of stamps, and the way old Remus acted you would have thought Barlowe handed him the winning lotto ticket. Remus slapped a vintage book of Duke Ellington commemoratives on the counter and hooked his thumbs around his suspenders, which stretched taut across his big belly like a pair of rubber bands about to snap. He poked out his chest, as proud as if he'd designed the things himself.

The stamps were so beautiful a full month passed before Barlowe could bring himself to mail a single one.

Now Remus headed to the front counter and pulled down the steel cage, to close up shop.

Barlowe turned to the supervisor. "I think I'll jus get my money back, then." "The machine doesn't give refunds, sir."

Barlowe pressed the change button anyway, but nothing happened. He nodded toward the counter. "Then I'll get it there."

"The counter is closed...I'm telling you, sir: You have to get the flags."

There was no persuading Barlowe Reed once he made up his mind about something. When he made up his mind about something, pressure of the sort now being applied only served to stiffen his resolve. When the supervisor finished saying his piece, babbling on about what Barlowe had to do, he calmly shook his head. "No."

The red light on the stamp machine began blinking.

"You're gonna lose your money."

Shortly, the blinking stopped.

"Toldja. Now we're officially closed." The supervisor walked away.

Barlowe took a few steps back to collect himself. He stood there a moment, his eyes flitting around in disbelief. He cursed, charged forward and rammed a knuckle into the machine. Whack! He banged it again, determined to knock his five dollars loose. Whack! Whack!

The third punch shattered the glass. The few Model Ts, and all the flag stamps, tumbled out. Barlowe stood back, surprised that the glass had caved so easy. He hadn't intended for it to break.

The supervisor returned when he heard the noise. He homed in on all the stars and stripes lying on the floor, desecrated. His lips quivered, like he wanted to speak, but no sound spilled out. He glared at Barlowe and wagged a finger, then turned and rushed from the room.

Within moments — seconds it seemed — the post office door flung open, and three police officers burst inside. The postal supervisor pointed downward. "Look! Right there!"

The cops panned the shattered glass and scattered stamps. They eyed Barlowe standing there, nodding slowly, like he knew how the thing might play out. The cops unsnapped their gun straps and started forward. "Aw right, buddy! Aw right! This is it!"

It wouldn't be so easy for them this time around. Barlowe Reed was experienced at this sort of thing. He came from a long line of people who were experienced at this sort of thing.

Before the police could get the whipping going, he calmly turned his back to them. Without being told, he placed both hands behind him and held the wrists close together, inviting the cops to clamp on cuffs.

The officers stood there looking dumb, trying to think this one through. Finally, one cop, the only woman among them, stepped forward and slapped on cuffs. Her partners shot her a disgusted look.

While the post office employees looked on, the officers escorted Barlowe through the double doors. They shoved him into the squad car and sped him off toward jail.

Along the way, the city whizzed by in a lightning blur. Barlowe sat handcuffed in the backseat, a mixture of sadness and triumph gripping him.

I have survived this one, he thought. I have survived this one.

Survival or no, he had also done the very thing he always took pains not to do. He had delivered himself to Caesar. And, too, he would be late filing his tax returns.

Copyright © 2007 by Nathan McCall

Reading Group Guide

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?

Introduction

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 ofgentrification, 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?

Customer Reviews

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Them 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
SpyraGyra More than 1 year ago
This was my first read of McCall and I loved it! He brings the reader inside the characters as if the occurrences were reality.
SusanIL More than 1 year ago
This is an excellently crafted novel that looks at race relations and bigotry from a range of perspectives. The characters are interesting, frustrating and totally real and the plot rings true as similar situations are playing out all over the country on a daily basis. McCall has put together a fascinating story that is both thought provoking and interesting to read -- and his writing engages his readers from the start. I highly recommend!
assmuncher More than 1 year ago
This book is really a good read especially if you are white and want to read from a black person's perspective. True to life and interesting to read.
ajamu More than 1 year ago
them brings the new "race" issue to the surface gentifacation many historical black communities are facing this issue
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have to say I am disappointed that there are not more reader reviews at this point, with the book being out for a while, and I can't help but wonder if it is because the subject matter touches some very delicate nerves. In my line of work I hear from time to time talk about white privelege and as a white person I have to admit I never really understood it. Now, after reading this well-written novel by Nathan McCall, I think I am beginning to understand. The story, particularly the ending, was both depressing and uplifting at the same time. It was depressing because our two main characters, Barlowe and Sandy, will in all likelihood discontinue their difficult connection and yet at the same time you know that they will both continue to strive toward something better, intangible as it may seem. Sad though. Most people are not about to try as hard to understand each other as these two. Nathan McCall's novel certainly succeeds in making people think.
revslick on LibraryThing 19 days ago
Nathan makes a good first start in showing the subtle underbelly of racism in America, which has a lot of class and cultural issues we take for granted. He makes a decent start but too often the story gets lost in the transition from one perspective to the next, which made it slow and hard to connect to the characters. I'd love for Nathan to write book with this intent to see how he improves. probably a 2.5.
theeclecticreview on LibraryThing 19 days ago
Barlowe Reed is a single, African American man living in a home with his nephew in the old Fourth Ward of Atlanta. He is fed up with Caeser (his name for white authority) and continues to work as a printer and hang out with the local black men at the Minimart. Then one day a white couple buys the house next door to Barlowe. Before you know it more white people start moving into the neighborhood and the locals of the old Fourth Ward aren¿t pleased. This is a story full of racial tension throughout and the climax is predictable, but very thought provoking. The characters are very simple, but complex and Mr. McCall brings us into the realms of racial prejudice from both sides of the fence. I listened to the audio book which was read superbly by Mr. McCall. This is a well written novel that holds your attention to the end.
Anonymous 7 months ago
Sobering, nuanced, and insightful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First of all, I would like to say Nathan Mccall is a great writer. I've read a few of his books. His stories are very stimulating. Them, depicts the constant stereotypes that continue to exist in our society. We are all guilty in some way. Our past inflictions have had a major impact in the way we view life. Each of us have our own individual burdens to deal with. White and Black.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Gentrification 'dictionary.com' ¿ the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses. In Nathan McCall¿s second release, the issue at hand is the gentrification of Atlanta¿s Old Fourth Ward, heavily populated by African-Americans who have become comfortable within their own zone and accustom to their way of life. The neighborhood enters a phase of change because ¿they¿ start moving in. Most African Americans in the neighborhood - like main character character, Barlowe Reed, are uncomfortable with accepting the change due to innate feelings of there simply being just ¿too much water under the bridge.¿ Cohabitating with seemingly concerned others is a notion hardly acceptable. While reading this novel, I got the impression that Barlowe felt victimized by ¿the system¿ and simply became comfortable with his personal status quo because prior experience had proven him powerless in many ways, all because of his heritage. The sight of the American flag, not really being happy with his Caucasian supervisor¿s treatment towards him and the uneasiness he feels when he starts seeing the trickle of ¿them¿ moving into his neighborhood ¿ all representing things, situations or people he feels can take something from him. I get the sense Barlowe feels he doesn¿t own or have rights to anything ¿ a corner in the world he can call his own. The Old Fourth Ward goes through a period where the community is at odds due to a series of mishaps and downright misunderstandings that occur as more of ¿them¿ move in. The neighborhood becomes tense as the racial divide continues to grow. The African Americans feel as if they are being moved over and out as new coffee shops and pottery courses spring up. Black folks aren¿t into that kind of thing. They also see that the public officials are paying more close attention to the ¿potential¿ now. Where was the potential in the neighborhood before? Did it not exist prior to ¿them¿ moving in? One particular example, the streets are now being paved whereas before a pothole was nothing major. Now bike paths are being petitioned because¿they¿ live in the Old Fourth Ward now. Enter Sean and Sandy Gilmore, a Caucasian couple, moving to the Old Fourth Ward after a realtor pitches the neighborhood to them asking if they¿d consider ¿going black,¿ reassuring an apprehensive Sean that ¿they¿ drive values thus, no need to worry about property values deteriorating ¿ ¿the prices are still real low, but I¿m telling you it¿s about to explode.¿ Sandy, on the other hand, anticipated seeing the homes for sale in the neighborhood. Now, Barlowe has ¿them¿ as neighbors. Barlowe and Sandy form an unusual relationship after many conversations through a fence that separated their back yards. Both characters become frustrated with race relations. She believing she is a conduit for integration and he making her aware that it¿s not that easy to just slide in and think she can save the world. Barlowe thinks Sandy is naïve and while she does empathize with him regarding the situation at hand in the Old Fourth Ward, she does not speak her feelings publicly. I do believe at some point, the two agreed to disagree on a lot of things, developed a certain degree of respect and level of understanding toward the other, eventually moving on. Barlowe settling into the Old Fourth Ward as it continued to change, while Sandy and Sean ended up moving away. Nathan McCall does a good job in provoking reader thought towards race relations in America today. The book discusses the basis of misunderstandings between African Americans and Caucasians and assumptions based on stereotypes. I think Them will force readers to examine their own thought patterns on the issue. Them is a page turner. Although the storyline does not present solutions, it does make one think.