Corrupt, Brash, and Proud
Foley’s anticipated second book takes on Chicago police brutality
with a tough, sensitive, and modern sensibility.
BY MAGGIE REAGAN
Much like her widely lauded debut (The Carnival at Bray, 2014), Foley’s second novel is a blistering coming-of-age story, centered around a girl with a
troubled family and imbued with music. This time, though,
instead of the frenzied, near-religious fever-dream of 1990s
grunge rock, it’s blue-collar, steel-scented Americana. Wendy
Boychuck, a lifelong resident of Chicago’s Jefferson Park
neighborhood, is named not for the flighty darling of Peter
Pan but rather for the girl in Bruce Springsteen’s seminal
“Born to Run,” a song that has always featured heavily on
the soundtrack of her life. It was Springsteen, in fact, who
blared through the CD player when her father’s fellow cops
arrived not to shoot the breeze but to arrest him.
For Wendy, her father’s 17-year prison sentence comes
with a distinct loss of faith: a crooked cop, he was found
guilty of perjury, obstruction of justice,
and torture and aggravated battery in the
interrogation room, and Wendy struggles
to rationalize the coexistence of the father
she has loved with the villain the city hates.
As the daughter of Chicago’s now most
notorious cop, Wendy faces her own set
of problems, and, scared and confused as
her family falls apart, she puts up her own
set of defenses. Abandoning her loyal best
friend, Wendy takes up with her school’s
most popular and vicious set of girls: Emily, Sapphire, and ringleader Kenzie. This
is her armor: friendship that never goes too
deep, a clique that safeguards her from the
whispers of the world. Two years after her
father’s arrest, Wendy is a junior at a small,
all-girls Catholic school, still wrestling with
that loss of faith and the decisions she’s
made to protect herself.
It would have been easy for Foley to fall
into the trap of a sophomore slump. After all, this contains
much of what made The Carnival at Bray such a sleeper success: a girl struggling to grow up amid loss, a music-driven
narrative, a story firmly rooted in a sense of place. But
Neighborhood Girls is no mere re-creation. Where Carnival
was steeped in 1990s nostalgia and the magic of Europe, this
is a heartbreakingly modern representation of a city at the
heart of America, propelled by Wendy’s singular, matter-of-fact voice.
Though rarely mentioned explicitly, the story surrounding
Wendy’s father’s arrest is rife with the underlying racial ten-
sions that make Chicago what it is. It’s uncomfortably easy
to translate Stephen Boychuck’s language as he tries to justify
his actions: “In my dad’s stories,” Wendy recalls, “he was the
great force that strode through the neighborhood, protecting
the hardworking normal people and destroying the gang-
bangers and thugs.” So, too, is it easy to picture exactly the
man Wendy describes when she speaks of her father. “After
all,” she muses as she and her mother drive through quiet
farmlands to visit him in a Nebraska prison, “Steve Boy-
chuck was Chicago: corrupt, brash, proud, thick-wristed and
dark-mustached, full of quick anger and fierce love in equal
measure. How could he survive out here in
this quiet, polite, decent stretch of America?
How could he even make sense?”
It is the struggle to make sense of things
that dogs Wendy over the course of her
junior year of high school. With years of
Catholic education behind her, she has a
baseline for faith, if not a direction. Even
as she takes refuge in friendships, toxic as
they may be, Wendy searches for something
bigger, whether it’s through a school legend
about the weeping portrait of a saint, a
ghost-hunting aunt, or a misguided tattoo.
But even as Wendy fights to unmake and
re-create herself, she can’t let go of Alexis, the
best friend she left behind when she joined
up with Kenzie’s crew. In the end, it’s soft,
loyal, classical-musician Alexis who gives the
book its name, not brash and fearless Kenzie.
Alexis tells Wendy, after her father’s arrest
but before his conviction, “but we don’t always have to be
Who you are is not always who you’ve been. People can
be remade, and remade again. Corrupt and decaying as the
world—or one city—may be, there is something worth liv-
ing for in every life. Really, when all is said and done, what’s
more American than that?
By Jessie Ann Foley.
Sept. 2017. 368p. Harper Teen,
$17.99 (9780062571854). Gr. 9–12.