Gabriel Bump’s debut novel, “Everywhere You Don’t Belong,” offers a coming-of-age story about Claude McKay Love, a young black boy raised by his eccentric grandmother and her longtime friend Paul in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. Claude is an introverted kid who tries to make sense of his parents’ absences, the poverty and violence that he witnesses and experiences, and the rants of Paul and his grandmother.
All of those concerns, atop the normal dilemmas that boys encounter with bullies, first sexual encounters, basketball tryouts, and trying to figure out one’s own ambitions, render a portrait of an introverted writer who has vivid romantic dreams but has difficulties articulating how he deals with pressures from the outside world.
A major turn in Claude’s life takes place when another neighborhood boy dies under mysterious circumstances at the hands of police, and a clash with “The RedBelters”—a group of kids led by Big Columbus, a neighborhood dealer who aspires to fashion himself after Fred Hampton. When the RedBelters collide with the police, riots overtake South Shore and Claude’s crush, young neighbor Janice, is almost caught in the riots. It isn’t until the melee subsides that they discover that Janice’s father was killed, and much like Claude’s parents, Janice’s mother leaves her daughter with Claude’s family.
Bump writes about the evolution of Claude and Janice with a thoughtfulness captured in clear, and sometimes very short sentences, which may be a nod to Bump’s interest in Stuart Dybek. Bump also captures a deep sense of loss as he documents the stories of Claude’s classmates and friends. After he decides to go to college for journalism in Missouri, and Janice tries to exact her revenge as a young woman against the RedBelters, the drama heightens. Janice’s plan overshadows the conflict that Claude encounters when he and a fellow black student are pressured to write about race at the university’s student newspaper.
This conflict is undercut by Janice unexpectedly showing up at Claude’s university, the more dramatic confrontation overtakes the novel and articulates insights about racial conflicts in America and how they differ in the city and the rural Midwest. Although more insight could be gleaned about the characters from how they think through their situations, the conclusion arrives abruptly, and there is that ache that Claude and Janice deserve more time to actualize and aspire to be their fullest selves.
Gabriel Bump will be in conversation with Audrey Petty at the Seminary Co-Op on February 17, 2020 at 6pm.
“Everywhere You Don’t Belong”
By Gabriel Bump
Algonquin Books, 264 pages
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.