Everywhere You Don’t Belong puts the focus on South Shore | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

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Everywhere You Don’t Belong puts the focus on South Shore

Gabriel Bump’s debut novel looks at what it’s like to never feel at home.

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Claude McKay Love recounts his life in two parts that many will be familiar with: before college and after college. At just five years old, Claude is abandoned by his mother and father who he's been told have moved to Missouri from Chicago's South Shore neighborhood, leaving Claude to be taken care of by his grandmother and her longtime best friend, Paul. Before they leave, the young Black boy sees his parents' friends disappear, setting the stage for a series of moments of abandonment.

Gabriel Bump's Everywhere You Don't Belong (Algonquin Books) follows Claude as he grows up on the south side of Chicago, then goes away to college in Missouri. A young Claude is somewhat satisfied living in South Shore, being filled with love by his grandmother and Paul. It's not until a riot kills several people in his neighborhood that struggles of violence and abandonment mount, and he is compelled to go to college to get away from the city.

From the start there is a strong premise of moving away. Before his partner, Teeth, dies, Paul tries to convince him they should move to Florida; a family friend left South Shore after struggling to accept his wife had left him, also for Florida; and their two children ended up in another state without either of their parents. Not long after, Claude's childhood teacher Ms. Bev goes missing, his childhood friend Bubbly moves to Oak Park, and his other friend Nugget enrolls in a middle school on the north side, both lifetimes away for any child living in a city as large as Chicago without the resources to travel.

As the book progresses, more friends move away and change becomes the ultimate constant for Claude. But the timing of events in the novel is murky. There's so much reflection on the history of Chicago, like the 1968 Democratic National Convention, that it becomes easy to think the book takes place in the late 60s and early 70s. It's not until drill rapper Chief Keef is mentioned that I realized that Claude was living in the 2010s when he was in high school. Obama is also mentioned here and there, but it's unclear which political office he's holding at the time.

In Claude's South Shore, a fictional riot happens. No more are the days of the neighborhood being safer, with mostly Irish and Jewish residents. Black people moved to the area, white people moved away, and violence increased in the 1980s, leading to the South Shore Claude knows. Mixing real and fictional events can create a strong new world, and including local school closings hints at the struggles this community faces. Yet the story is still missing world-building to paint how Claude's South Shore "magically" became a more violent environment; while it could be assumed that local businesses had gone out of business or were not being supported, stable jobs were not available, and the area was a food desert (amongst other real-world resource issues in South Shore), Claude is mostly seen catapulted between home, school, and sidewalks. It's an oversight that could easily make readers who are unfamiliar with Chicago fall victim to the lazy trope about violence on the south side.

A more vivid picture could have made clear why Claude's South Shore is so susceptible to violence and why residents are angered by police presence in the area. His neighborhood on Euclid Avenue soon goes into uproar after a police killing of an innocent boy who was feeding his neighbors' pets while they were on vacation. The Redbelters, a neighborhood gang who seem to gain so many members that enrollment in local schools decreases, face the police while residents of the area either join the fight or try their best to leave the scene before tension mounts.

Claude is nearly caught in the uproar with a friend, Janice, and her aunt Annette. Ultimately, 26 people die in the riot, including Janice's uncle. Janice's aunt eventually leaves her, too. The foundation of the two teens' confusing (and quite unhealthy) romantic-yet-unromantic relationship becomes the center of Claude's life until the end of the book, when he is in college.

The bluntness of Claude and his childhood friends provides many literal laugh-out-loud moments, like when Bubbly says, "My parents think a police officer tied him to the tracks because Teeth wouldn't fuck him." Among the constant deaths and other losses, Bump ensures a laugh—even if it's a guilty one—to soften the blows of Claude's reality. The second part of his story is completely unrooted from precollege Claude. Whether it be a symptom of his growing up or intentional plotting, Claude's relationship to the city and others, even himself, feels confusing and it becomes difficult to understand why he makes choices that seem to contradict what he said was of value to him as he grew up in South Shore, like safety and a sustainable future.

In adulthood, Claude learns that whether he's in Chicago, or Columbia, Missouri, home is more about who you're surrounded by than where you are. Though Janice only considers leaving Chicago after a run-in with the Redbelters, the urgency of having to leave Chicago to thrive, no matter who you're leaving behind, remains. It's unfortunate and understandable that Claude, like many other real-life south siders, finds it difficult to see a future in the city that raised them. If only Claude could see that as a Black American, he'll be running forever if he continues to rely on others to tell him where he belongs.   v

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