advance reading copy (thank you!!)
When I began reading this novel, I was sort of taken aback at the simplicity of it all and I was a bit on the iffy side, but the truth is that the further I got into it the more I realized that it's not simple at all -- it is intelligent and works at a level of complexity I hadn't quite anticipated.
I suppose it is what most people are calling it, a coming-of-age story, following Claude McKay Love beginning with childhood growing up in an African-American neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. His life is a series of people leaving, with his parents taking off first, followed here and there by his friends. The only solid thing in Claude's life is his grandmother, who along with her live-in friend Paul, brings him up as best as she can, which isn't always easy. Although his grandmother believes that Claude is "not a follower" but will eventually become "his own man," by the time middle school rolls around she and Paul also see that he is "sentimental, no backbone, adrift, unspectacular." He is not good at sports like his friends and is the kind of kid who at a lunchtime assembly at school sits in the back "behind band kids and the science club." He is an empathetic sort of kid, who cares about his friends, who cries when he sees an injured squirrel; he suffers through periods of depression, and has been called "soft" more than once. This "unspectacular" boy, however, not only has to make his way through being abandoned, but also through other challenges that present themselves in various forms. Everywhere You Don't Belong chronicles not only how he weathers these storms and survives and what he learns about himself in the process, but also highlights the people in his life who help provide love, friendship, and a measure of stability as he's doing so.
What makes this somewhat atypical of a standard coming-of-age tale is in the way the author also examines different forms of oppression, racism and ideology that find their way into Claude's life, as well as how he copes with it all. I don't want to spoil things for potential readers but a pivotal point in this novel is a riot in his neighborhood (mentioned in the blurb so not a spoiler) caused by the wrongful killing by the police of a young African-American boy which, in the long run not only highlights ideological divisions among the people there but causes him to question his life in South Shore. As he is finishing high school, he has decided to get out of what he calls "the toxic bubble" in which he feels trapped, believing that "the rest of the world isn't like this." Once he's moved on to college in Missouri, leaving behind his home, friends, family and everything he's known, his past comes back to him in a very big and unexpected way. However, he also comes to an even greater awareness from his experiences in both Chicago and Missouri, one which I'll leave readers to discover on their own.
Do not let the simplicity of the prose or the style fool you. And think out of the box when you get to the end, which seems both simplistic and unrealistic, but the author is making a point here. While there are a number of funny moments where I couldn't help but laugh, Everywhere You Don't Belong is a serious novel telling a serious story that needs to be heard. Very highly recommended, and Mr. Bump should be congratulated for a first novel very well done.
There is an excellent interview with Gabriel Bump which I read after finishing this book at Electric Lit that opened my eyes wide, but do not read it until after you've turned the last page and closed the cover. Spoilers abound so beware.