It’s not uncommon for a short work of fiction to elicit a reaction that calls for more—that the richness of the story and the characters could very well expand into a novel. Not so often is the inverse true for novels winnowing down to a shorter work, novella or less. Yet such is the case with Bayo Ojikutu’s sophomore effort, the problematic Free Burning. While sharing much in common with Ojikutu’s award-winning debut 47th Street Black—unrealized hope, failed promise, a gritty, brass-knuckle voice aligning with the violence and crime that both buttress and decimate the world Ojikutu’s characters inhabit—Free Burning lacks focus and enough intrigue to sustain its four hundred pages.
The novel centers around Tommie Simms and his Odyssey-esque journey through the South Side of Chicago’s Four Corners, encountering a myriad of characters ranging from crooked cops, dope dealers, loan sharks, and old-time neighborhood sages. In its best moments, the novel is a careful examination of class and race. Ojikutu clearly understands the truth behind any timeline concerning the history of these two social phenomena, that when dealing with class and race, nothing is consistent, and, eventually, everything and everyone becomes contradictory and oppositional. Yet such moments of keen insight are buried beneath the misguided colloquial monologue that occupies the bulk of Free Burning.
At the book’s opening, Tommie has recently lost his job at a downtown insurance firm, a result of 9/11’s financial aftermath. He’s got three months left of state aid, a ten-month-old baby, and a wife who is exhausted from the daily grind of being a mother and the family’s sole breadwinner. Their marriage is falling apart not only because of the strain, but also because of Tommie’s malaise during his jobless stretch. Much of his time is spent either at the local bar—putting his child in the care of his former addict mother—or at his cousin Remi’s apartment, who deals drugs along with his half-brother, Westside Jackie. After a series of disappointing job interviews that leave Tommie with few options, the college graduate begins to sell weed alongside Remi and Jackie. The decision fails horribly; before he can unload half of his two-pound marijuana supply, Tommie is arrested by Weidmann, a dirty cop who patrols the Four Corners. Because of his obligations to Remi and Jackie, his entanglement with Weidmann, his debts to a local loan shark and to his mother, who bailed him out of prison, Tommie is dragged further down into the exact world he went to college to escape.
The problem within the novel hinges on Tommie, our narrator. From early on, Tommie is placed down a road of forking paths: every encounter with other characters in the book, every conversation and piece of advice, present Tommie with a trajectory that will affect all subsequent choices. Like the Odyssey, all options have the stench of death—"the great leveler"—lingering on their trails. The difficulty with Tommie’s character is that his desires are never established; we don’t know where his trials are leading him. While Odysseus journeyed to return home to Penelope and Telemachus, Tommie isn’t consciously heading toward or away from anything. His interactions with his wife and child are mostly ambivalent; he never expresses a want or, more fitting, a desperation, to distance himself from his tangled web of crime, nor does he express any fascination or attraction to it. The same can be said about his office job—there is neither a sense of pleasure nor loathing. Tommie straddles two worlds—despondency in the Four Corners and affluence downtown—yet he never uses his intelligence to excel in or escape either one. Instead he allows himself to be a pawn of both the white-collar corporate vultures and the ghetto hustlers. Windows open for Tommie in each milieu, yet he chooses neither. He chooses nothing. There are moments when Tommie speaks about freedom as a desire, but the parameters he lays out are largely opaque and inscrutable:
[M]y mind will be long made and I’ll care nothing of these obligations, my short options, or of the corners waiting just outside this box. Once my mind is made, all I’ll care about is freedom—freedom just for me because living free will be such a self-possessing thing, high and powerful as some from the crack pipe. Crave that smoke, swallowing freedom’s cloud into my own lungs and, maybe, letting all the rest of them get free off my exhale. Maybe. But I don’t give a damn if they choose not to inhale.
As the novel progresses, this thinking occurs less and less, yet Tommie is more self-aware than what he delivers. Still, while the novel is overfilled with these forced poetics whose evocations are slight, it also has moments when the language achieves a nearly sublime usage. When alone with the aggressive and dominating Jackie, Tommie thinks, "I know I scare you mofo . . . It’s cause I got these thoughts, and you see um shining, not floating, in my eyes. Scariest thing this world done ever known is a nigga with thoughts."
Or, in a scene where Tommy reminisces of being a child and dreaming about a panther invading his bedroom:
Whatever he saw hurt the panther plenty—its own eyes shined wet as its hoofs retreated to the doorway, where the panther drooled and growled soft. My stomach boiled as I begged the beast to try coming near again, crash down these bars, for they were built only of splinters. Snatch me with those claws like panthers are supposed to do bloody prey. Take me with it, so far away.
Ultimately though, where these thoughts can lead Tommie becomes muddled and lost; he is simply carried along in the current of surrounding forces. And while this may be reminiscent of Camus’ The Stranger, it’s far less compelling.
The outcome of this lack of characterization is a sense of familiarity that permeates its pages. The more encounters Tommie has with Remi, Jackie, Weidmann, or any other character, the more similar and circular they become; every conversation feels like the one before it. Likewise, the same can be expressed with the novel’s basic story: young man from impoverished area tries to make good, societal constructs force him into a life of crime. It was Solomon who said there’s nothing new under the sun. Understanding this, there certainly is not an expectation for any novelist to prove such wisdom wrong. But that doesn’t mean that everything already known can’t be reexamined. Without a strong character forcing the narrative ahead, kicking over rocks of insight along the way, Free Burning is but the sum of its story, and this story has been done before.
Yet all is certainly not for naught is Ojikutu’s work. There are those moments where the language soars, and Ojikutu’s rendering of the parallels between white-collar crimes of the corporate world and the base crimes of the impoverished city are adroit and stated with the perfect amount of latency. Free Burning is a well-intentioned enough novel, but it’s not one that grabs the reader by the labels with the depths it uncovers. One gets the impression that Tommie, and Ojikutu, have more to offer.