Black, white, brown, or yellow, on Chicago’s South Side, your neighborhood is your surname. Put on a gun belt, a suit, or a nun’s habit, and all you did was accessorize.
For those of you exiting the ’L near Eighteenth and Laflin in the Four Corners, the etiquette is: grab a length of rebar, scratch a cross in the concrete, set both feet solid in the quadrant that best fits your skin tone, lean back, and start shooting. Welcome to Chicago, the “2016 Olympic City.” We’re glad you’re here.
Thus begins Start Shooting, the new—and second—novel by Charlie Newton. And it’s a great read. There. That’s my review in a nutshell. It’s not perfect, of course, but what book is? I’ve seen novels reviewed as perfect and, when I read them, found all kinds of problems.
Critics. Go figure.
Start Shooting is the story of Bobby Vargas and Arleen Brennan, who grew up in the Four Corners. Bobby is a gang cop. Arleen is a waitress/actress and the twin sister of Coleen Brennan, who was murdered twenty-nine years ago at the age of thirteen. Mr. Newton tells us their story in alternating first-person narratives that have very distinct voices, which is no small feat in and of itself.
Here’s the basic plot: twenty-nine years ago, Bobby and Arleen were next door neighbors. This was before the further segregation of the hood and the current war between the Twenty-Treys and Latin Kings. Booby and Arleen’s sister Coleen were boyfriend/girlfriend in that innocent way young kids can be. They had held hands and kissed, but all this had to be done in secret, since Coleen was Irish and Bobby Mexican American.
Then Coleen was raped and murdered. A year later, her mother died, and twin sister Arleen disappeared. As the book progresses, we learn that Arleen hopped a bus to LA and tried to become an actress there, but all she ever got was tantalizingly close. So now she’s back in Chicago, waiting tables and still hoping for her big break.
Bobby, meanwhile, grew up and became a cop, as did his older brother Ruben, who is a homicide detective. One night while staging a drug buy, a new female member of the gang team Bobby works on is killed. Everything goes downhill from there.
A front-page exposé in the Herald brings back Coleen’s murder and implicates Bobby and Ruben. As the story progresses, the accusations deepen to the point Bobby is accused of being a child molester and murderer. In short, he starts feeling as if he’s being blamed for every crime that’s happened since Cain killed Abel.
The story is gritty and real, and you come away from it feeling some of the grime of Chicago’s South Side streets and corrupt political machine—not to mention a bit of dirt from the federal government thrown in. I say that last to tantalize you, because if I tell you more along that line, it’ll spoil it for you.
If I have issues with this, it’s more on the personalities of Bobby and Arleen. Both start realizing there’s some kind of conspiracy going on (and I don’t mean in the Grassy Knoll sense but in the more common criminal conspiracy), and it turns out that Ruben is at the center of it. For Arleen, this means she is constantly doing what I thought were stupid things in order to break free of Ruben’s control. For Bobby, it’s his stubborn refusal, despite almost twenty years of being a street cop in Chicago, of all places, that his brother might be corrupt.
It’s understandable. When you step back and look at it, these two have to have hang-ups. It makes them human, for one. And for another, they’re the kind of people who would fight the system. Part of the reason Arleen returned to Chicago was that she realized she couldn’t beat the Hollywood system, no matter how many “favors” she did for movie and casting directors. For Bobby, it’s seeing what’s happened to his neighborhood and fighting for recognition as a second-generation Mexican American who insists that other Hispanics speak to him in English.
There are plot twists aplenty, such as the truth about Coleen and Bobby, which isn’t sinister but adds depth to the story, as well as the corruption that Ruben is involved in and just how wrong it is. All the characters, no matter how long they’re onstage, are fully realized individuals with distinct personalities. Some of them you want to backhand and tell ’em to wake the hell up, others you want to hug and tell them the world isn’t all the way you’ve experienced it. You become involved in their lives because they become friends you care about or enemies you want to see—well, at least caught, if not killed.
And the vast majority of it takes place in the space of six days. Six long days for the participants, in which they seem to seldom sleep or even get a chance to clean up, must less stop for a moment to regroup and reassess.
It’s a story where the past not only haunts the present, but figures into it in a major way. It interweaves with the present like threads in a tapestry. And like a master weaver, Charlie Newton brings all those threads together into a satisfying picture that, while not perfect—and this time I mean in the sense of Disney movie happily ever after—brings everyone a measure of closure, maybe even happiness. In other words, it doesn’t have a Hollywood ending, but it does have a good one that makes sense in the real world.
So if you’re in the market for a gritty, street-real read, pick up a copy of Start Shooting by Charlie Newton. It’s worth the time.