Gabriel Bump. Photo by Jeremy Handrup.

South Shore Novelist Mixes Humor and Tragedy

A review of Gabriel Bump’s 2020 novel, 'Everywhere You Don’t Belong'

Claude McKay Love is funny. I just don’t know if he knows it.

When we first meet Claude, the protagonist and narrator of Gabriel Bump’s 2020 debut novel Everywhere You Don’t Belong, he is very young, probably four or five. Initially, Claude’s age seems to account for the warped time and non sequiturs that lend scenes a surreal and hilarious quality.

Claude describes an early memory: his grandma swings him by the ankle to sit him on the curb and he watches his father wrestle a man, described as having a sad face, outside of the house. “On his tongue: something important and tragic, a forever-buried secret.” When the cops arrive, Claude is applauding, and the cops laugh at the “ridiculous black-on-black crime.”

By the time Claude’s parents abandon him in the second chapter, it is clear that this book flicks humor like a knife, shocking you before you can feel the pain. It is also clear that Claude’s bizarre narration is not just a symptom of his youth. The sharpness of detail Claude provides is staggering in moments, creating a disorienting contrast with the lack of explanation. 

“When Mom and Dad had their final fight, we were late to an all-black rendition of Fiddler on the Roof…Dad was out there without a boat, without pants or suit jacket, down to his underwear.”

This moment doesn’t become any clearer in context—in the paragraph that surrounds the sentence, there are no clues to indicate that Claude’s father is even near a body of water. Scene-setting information is doled out with such an unexpected rhythm that it keeps the reader searching for answers to fairly basic questions. What was Dad doing “out there” in the first place? How did he get in the water? Is he high, or having a mental break? Is this funny? Is it sad? The reader only receives facts in dubious breadcrumbs or direct statements, when Claude unexpectedly calls something what it is, or through the commentary of another adult present.

The moments of lucidity remain a mainstay of Claude’s affect. Even as he grows older and his perception of the world develops, Claude remains an eccentric narrator for whom time and context are constantly shifting substances.

Claude lives with his grandma and her friend Paul in a South Shore home that is as caring as it is unconventional. Paul and Grandma bicker but still care for each other. They criticize Claude bluntly but never without compassion. They display deep self-understanding while living with a sometimes gleeful denial of reality.

Claude is the ultimate observer, communicating his interiority in poetic snippets that intersect with hilariously frank descriptions of the world around him. When Claude loses his virginity in a thirty-second tryst with a first-time houseguest, he portrays an immature, awkward moment as unanticipated, brief, and yet profound. “Dawn, chemistry, physics, melding; rush, fire, an eclipse between us. Holding Janice like that—never again would I feel that close to someone.”

The moment passes in just a couple paragraphs and leaves the reader wondering if Janice will disappear, like Claude’s parents and childhood friends, or if this moment will become part of the continuous narrative. It’s the beginning of a new part of the book: a love story that winds its way through Claude’s life with varied levels of intensity.

Claude’s unique narration levels the urgency of dire moments, while elevating the status of quotidian details. He paints a multiplex portrait of the tragedy and comedy of his life. In Claude’s world, people float in and out as characters. South Shore is stagnant, and yet it changes overnight. People never cease to exist when the story moves on from them; it’s always clear that characters have lives off the page. It’s an ingenious way to paint a complicated portrait of South Shore.

In the South Shore of this novel, small occurrences happen in conjunction with big ones. It is precisely this subversion of gravity that makes Everywhere You Don’t Belong so effective in its portrayal of a complex person’s existence in a nuanced neighborhood. The author knows that humor thrives in contact with tragedy, and he uses that as a tool throughout. He never lets the reader forget that people in South Shore live multitudinous lives.

When South Shore explodes into what the book describes as a war between raging community residents, gang members, and the police, however, something in Claude changes. Now a strange yet lovable teenager, Claude is overwhelmed by the sheer bigness of this culmination of events in his neighborhood, so he leaves to study journalism at the University of Missouri. The book weathers this environmental shift with some tonal dissonance.

As a reader, I found Claude harder to understand outside of his home. The style of writing doesn’t adjust to Claude’s new environment. The dreamlike narration does not feel grounded enough to show the reader what life really feels like in this new place. It’s a continuation of the style that works so well during the majority of the book—but I found myself wishing that Claude would do some of the work that his environs in South Shore did to clue me in on his interiority.

The novel’s author, Gabriel Bump, grew up in South Shore and stayed in Chicago through his undergraduate studies at School of the Art Institute Chicago. This intimacy with South Shore is apparent in Bump’s writing. He is able to suspend rules of time and context because he delivers such precise details about the neighborhood. “Thank you South Shore. Love you,” he writes in the acknowledgements.

Even still, Bump’s portrayal of leaving home feels less precise. Perhaps for that reason, the third act of the book brought forth aspects that didn’t feel successful to me. In sudden turns, Claude’s narration shifts to an analytical tone that feels out of step with the removed observational style that he generally floats in. Near the end of the book, the machinations of the plot become uncharacteristically difficult to believe, trading absurdity for neatness in defiance of what the book has taught us about its world. And, maybe like Claude (or Bump), I simply missed South Shore when he left.

My favorite works of art have always been the ones that become both funnier and sadder upon their revisiting. Everywhere You Don’t Belong fits into that genre and elevates it. It is a cliche to say I laughed out loud, but I will say it for this book, and more: I laughed at moments so sad they took my breath away, and when I returned to my favorite lines, I found that they were all the more tragic for their humor. This book is a wonderful debut from an author with an exquisite talent for marrying humor with trauma, poetry with frankness, and truth with the unreliable angels of memory. 

Everywhere You Don’t Belong, by Gabriel Bump. 272 pages. Workman Publishing, 2020. $25.95 hardcover.

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Sage Behr is an actor, writer, and barista originally from Iowa City. This is her first article for the Weekly.

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