Free Burning by Bayo Ojikutu

Free Burning coverIt'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

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.

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