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Cinematic Grit

In Bayo Ojikutu's books, his native south side leaps to life.

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Most writers cite other authors when they talk about their influences. Bayo Ojikutu cites directors. "When I was younger it was mainstream stuff--Spielberg and George Lucas, John Hughes even," he says. "Scorsese was huge for me as I embraced writing with some seriousness. Mean Streets and After Hours--there is this visual poetry at work in that film, its rhyming images, its jarring exposition."

This month Three Rivers Press published Ojikutu's second novel, Free Burning, which has the kind of rich, cinematic realism you'd expect from somebody whose imagination was sparked by movies. Set in Four Corners, a neighborhood near his native South Shore, the book is narrated by Tommie, a young father who's displaced from his corporate job after 9/11 and winds up doing small-time drug hustles to get by. Full of flashbacks, tangents, and expository riffs, Ojikutu's writing has the unhinged, lyrical freeness of postbop jazz and the tightness and macho intensity of contemporary hip-hop; he can outline the grim, hard edges of a whole neighborhood or masterfully illuminate the details of a couple fighting. And it's a rare tale about the drug trade that concentrates on the people who get no glamour out of the life: Tommie drives a Taurus.

Ojikutu, 35, appeared on the lit radar in 2003 with his prizewinning debut novel, 47th Street Black, a story about south-side gangsters that was partly inspired by his trips to the old Hyde Park theater as a child. "I'd be lying if I claimed that the image of old players in gangster fedoras and pinstripes chasing Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier through the streets in Let's Do It Again didn't somehow lend something to the prologue to 47th Street Black," he says. "I guess I turned what was intended as escapist and comedic in film into the macabre and tragic in the written word."

His distinctive voice was also inspired by another unlikely source. "My parents will deny it to this day, but I swear they took us to Richard Pryor concert movies when they appeared in the theater," he says. "I was between 8 and 12, and maybe they plugged our ears or crinkled a bag or chewed popcorn extra loud during certain segments. But that was my exposure to the aesthetically illicit. Pryor was huge for me in terms of gaining confidence in a distinctive voice."

Now living in Woodlawn, Ojikutu teaches composition at DePaul, and he follows the same dictum he presents to his students. "You gotta write what you know," he says. "Everybody knows folks like Tommie--people doing a little something on the side. It's a grim story, and it's rarely treated in fiction. These kind of stories are rarely told or heard. We don't get to cross the trick borders. These sort of stories are the ones that deserve to be told."

Free Burning brims with details that make it all the more alive to readers in Chicago: crooked cops straight out of the Austin scandal, gentrification briskly reshaping entire neighborhoods, and the long shadows cast by public-housing towers. "People like to think of places like Four Corners as hell," Ojikutu says. "It isn't hell. It's part of our real world."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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