Imagine going to high school in an American city torn by racial and gang violence, riots, segregation, drug abuse, an out-of-touch education system and a police force riddled with racist, club ‘n’ trigger-happy cops, some who patrol your school’s hallways. Throw in a white mayor with zero tolerance for activists. For backdrop we’ve got the recent assassinations of both the most prominent civil rights leader of the twentieth century and a presidential candidate, set amid an unpopular, unsuccessful and seemingly never-ending war against a faraway people. Okay, where are we? Yup: Chicago. Too easy. The “when” is 1969, but tragically it pretty much could be now, as Chicago is again the postcard of the US of A.
Shawn Shiflett’s gritty, unflinching, and often funny novel “Hey, Liberal!” follows the misadventures of the white son of a civil-rights-activist minister who’s deliberately moved his family to a then-predominantly African-American, pre-gentrified Lincoln Park, blocks from Cabrini-Green, to do their part for desegregation. Simon’s dad makes his son walk the idealistic walk as one of the few whites at the local dilapidated high school, but he’s oblivious to the brutality, shakedowns and isolation that Simon endures almost daily, and Simon—typical teenager—doesn’t tell him, even when he comes home bloodied. The parents might seem a little John Hughes-y, but the kids veer more toward Scorsese.
This is a story about surviving adolescence and figuring out how to take a stand. Shiflett is adept at capturing teenage angst and vernacular, as well as the uncomfortable and awkward ways kids navigate friendship and shift alliances. Chicago is as much a character in this novel as any of the people. As in his earlier novel “Hidden Place,” Shiflett, a professor at Columbia College, grapples with the universal themes of culture clash, racism, and the haves versus the have nots. Riots in the streets beget riots in the school, and Simon has to blindly thread a needle to save himself. (Kate Burns)
By Shawn Shiflett
Academy Chicago Publishers, 312 pages, $14.99
Shawn Shiflett reads with Christine Rice at The Book Stall, 811 Elm, Winnetka, on September 10, 3pm.
Kate Burns is a writer, musician and voiceover talent living in Chicago. Her voice haunted the elevator in her gynecologist’s building until by chance the practice moved. She taught preschool Spanish for three years and, like a bartender, grew to rely on the security of having a guitar, or a bar, between herself and the patrons. It’s only a matter of time before she succumbs to her family’s lobbying for a dog. You may see her walking this dog on Chicago’s wintry sidewalks with a leash in one mittened hand and a tissue in the other. She enjoys knitting rectangles in large font while binge-watching TV. She rues the fact that she hasn’t been to a movie in several adjacent seasons, but give her a book and she’s golden. She likes gardening. Plants are quiet. Her one and only child challenges her daily like the Mack truck of karma. Her favorite animals are seahorses and hummingbirds and her favorite food is popcorn. She decided on these as a teenager and hasn’t revised her opinions.