John R. Greenya

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

In a world where compliance with corrupt authority is the better part of valor, and where fathers teach their sons the wisdom of deceit, a question of right or wrong is never a simple matter. And when a ten-year-old Negro boy, who has witnessed the accidental slaughter of his neighborhood idol by the police, is called in to testify at a coroner's inquest, he is truly "down to the nitty-gritty." This is not Calhoun mumbling, "Woe is me," or Ole Jim worrying about the missing Huck; [Hog Butcher depicts] the very real dilemma of a young boy who lives in a jungle called Cook County, Illinois.

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Wilford Robinson, sickened by the senseless butchery, seeks truth as a weapon of revenge. His reaction to the inevitable pressure, inevitable because the police will not admit the possibility of having killed the wrong man, is so well handled by the author that even the cynical will find the ending plausible. Ronald L. Fair skillfully contrasts the idea of goodness and the image of the neighborhood covered with filth and smothered by frustration.

There are moments of weak dialogue, and far too many clichés, which would limit the book's impact were it not for the overriding power and drama of the boy's moment of truth. Perhaps realizing the difficulty inherent in having Wilford tell his own story, Mr. Fair has chosen to move the plot along by shifting the emphasis to the minor characters. Thus the reader comes to know and understand the dead hero, the two policemen (one white, the other Negro) who shot him, the county power structure and, most clearly, the miserable ghetto.

Novels about the plight of the Afro-American are so often polemical or didactic that art runs a poor second to argument, but in this book there are moments of indisputable artistry….

If the novel were longer, and more naturalistic, it could become the final part of a Chicago trilogy, the first two-thirds having been written by James T. Farrell and Nelson Algren; for, like the work of these two men, Hog Butcher offers a view of the city's shame. But the book's topicality is not its strong point. Instead of being a fine book about Chicago that happens to be a novel, it's a fine novel that happens to be about some people in Chicago.

And if you want to appreciate fully the irony of the title, reread Carl Sandburg's poem, "Chicago." The hogs, in Ronald Fair's book, are of a different color.

John R. Greenya, "A Jungle Called Cook County," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIX, No. 36, September 3, 1966, p. 36.

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