Monday, April 30, 2018

Review of A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner (2017, Down and Out Books)

1952, the American Mid-West. After a bar brawl, former Chicago cop Elliot Caprice wakes in the holding cells under the St Louis courthouse. Caprice is embittered and disillusioned, a Second World War veteran who is now on the run after killing two cops while working undercover for the Feds in the Chicago police to root out corruption; a mixed raced, educated man living in a world of overt and casual racism. Using his one phone call he asks old friends from Southville, Illinois, to come to his aid. Returning to his old town he finds the family farm in foreclosure, his adopted father living in a local flophouse, and the local mobster he used to run with fending off a new gang. Determined to save the farm, Caprice finds work as a runner for a local attorney, tracking down people and serving notices. One of the attorney’s clients is a rich Chicago family who are fighting over the estate after the untimely death of the patriarch. After meeting the beautiful gold digger at the centre of the fight, Caprice decides to enter into a private venture and return to Chicago and resolve the mess, knowing that it’ll drag him back into the underbelly of the city and potentially his own downfall.

It’s fair to say that there’s a lot going on in Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay. At the core of the story is the conflicted life of Elliot Caprice, the light-skinned child of a black man and white woman, brought up traversing the black and white Jewish communities of Southville, Illinois; college educated, a military veteran, a former cop, and on the run after killing two cops when his cover as a Fed informer was blown. The tale follows Caprice’s attempt to save himself, his uncle and their farm after it is foreclosed by the bank by becoming involved in trying to resolve a battle over a rich Chicago family’s estate, which has been built on crime and corruption. At the same time, the story provides social commentary on racism and anti-Semitism pervading life in 1950s America. Caprice’s personal issues and the case are somewhat convoluted and both are a strength and weakness of the story. The strength is an engaging, flawed character fighting personal demons whilst dealing with a handful of simultaneous battles which ensure there’s a non-stop flow of action. The weakness is it is sometimes tricky to following what is happening, often amplified by Gardner’s pared back scenes that sacrifice detail for pace, which led to me re-reading passages to pick up nuances that seemed to skip by. The result was a story that seemed to hurtle along through a maze, when a little less pace and some embellishment at times would have given the reader a better sense of the journey. Nonetheless, there’s plenty to like, especially Caprice and the historical window into 1950s race relations in the US, and the tale is hopefully the start of a series.

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