A review of North and Central by Bob Hartley

Reviewed by Jan Peregrine

North and Central
by Bob Hartley
Tortoise Books
Paperback: 240 pages, April 1, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-0986092282

I love Chicago, so when I read about this upcoming novel, North and Central, being based in late 1970s Chicago, I was hooked. It’s definitely a guy’s book, though, written by a Chicago-loving guy named Bob Hartley. While the book was a little rough-going for me as a woman, I found much to be charmed about.

Andy owns a bar on the West Side that his folks had owned, but when his father’s health declined inexorably because of Huntington’s Disease and his folks committed a shocking suicide, poor Andy inherited the bar. He’d been coached well to run it, but it’s been a hard-knocks life for him. Working with others instead of his folks has been one of his challenges. Another is knowing that he’ll probably develop Huntington’s and so refuses to marry the woman he loves, letting his best friend and crooked cop Jerry do so.

Chicago in the 1970s, of course, was as crime-ridden as it is today. Residents could expect to be held up any given night and you learned to not call attention to yourself by dressing down.

It’s also a hard-drinking, big town and Andy does a fair business with regulars from the dying Zenith factory, crooked cops, nurses, a bickering couple called the Skeletons, and other colorful characters, plus some new customers . As the book opens Andy fires a slacker, robbing bartender and decides to hire his lost love’s brother just sprung from prison (Joliet) for murder and being a dope addict.

“Fatboy” isn’t fat at all and looks like a damn stud, but that was his childhood nickname. It’s with a heavy heart and poor expectations that Andy hires him, but he turns out to learn quickly and well. For a while Andy has hope for the future, but then he realizes he’s developing the disease.

This gives him and his lost love an excuse to begin a secret affair that he cherishes and waxes sentimental over. Now he only needs a shitload of dough to help him muddle through his last, helpless years, hopefully with his love. Though she appreciates her husband’s loyalty to her and the nearly-nonexistent kids, she seems to love Andy and not him. She’s not happy with Andy’s little robberies to make money and suggests he and his team rip off a Currency Exchange. That’s when his problems boil over.

I say it’s a guy’s book because it’s not just narrated by an engaging Andy, but there’s not much romance to be found. Sure, Andy loves the married woman he has an affair with, but he didn’t marry her when he could have. Marriage is always depicted negatively and homosexual, ‘queer’ love comes off as a joke to him.

The choppy, lean writing strikes me as a guy’s kind of writing, but I do love some quirky humor sprinkled throughout. Two cheap Santas fight for the right to be in Andy’s bar and another time two wobbly octogenarians punch it out for the woman they love and the hubby shatters the other’s dentures. Defeated the toothless gent totters up to the bar to ask for a beer and is told “no teeth, no beer!”

North and Central is a gritty story of often charming, working class people barely getting by who live in fear for their lives and make a buck however they can. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to trust anybody. Andy really wanted to, though. That’s sad.

About the reviewer: Jan Peregrine has tried her hand at self-publishing and has about seven she recommends on Amazon or Audible. She has a new audiobook on audible.com, Dr. Freudine Is In: The Drama Deepens. Reviewers may ask for promo codes.