Following Tommy is a slim but powerful atmospheric novel that propels the reader directly to the mean streets of 1960s Chicago. With a deceased mother and an alcoholic father, the Irish-American O’Day brothers are teens who have had to grow up before they were ready. In this first-person narrative told by younger brother Jacky, the reader is exposed to the racial tensions that defined that volatile period of time in American history.
Jacky is the caretaker of the family; he cooks, he manages the finances, and he cleans up after his father, who is prone to crying jags. Jacky is also the academic of the family, of sorts; he has a love of reading that he tries to downplay in front of his brother Tommy and cousin Hippo.
Tommy is a rebel whose violent temper is akin to a pressure cooker. Tommy is a street tough, having done some time in juvenile detention for some minor criminal activity, an experience that changed his psyche, and not for the better. When a black family moves in to their working-class neighborhood, Tommy finds the perfect target to unleash his misplaced anger. Jacky, as younger brother, is goaded into becoming Tommy’s unwilling partner in crime, but the question becomes whether his conscience will allow him to continue on this path.
This could almost be labeled a coming-of-age novel, as Jacky is forced to grow up and make adult decisions as well as experiences a first love. Despite the dearth of pages in Following Tommy, the book contains a plethora of entertaining reading. The writing is crisp, the characters are authentic, and the story is gritty and raw.