Tuesday, 15 March 2011
A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes
Often, intertextual inertia must give way to old promises and the making good thereof. In the case of Chester Himes, who I’d rescued from the clearance bin in Waterstone’s Cardiff before the summer, the paying of deserved respect was long overdue.
I have a very soft spot for genre fiction, particularly when the content is framed quite so elegantly as that of Chester Himes’ Harlem cycle. Apologists justifiably present him as the Black American literary complement to white contemporaries and genre luminaries Chandler and Hammett, and from a personal perspective, his marriage of svelte prose and acute observation is as pleasing on the eye as anything from either author or other renowned pulp novelists like John D MacDonald. To my mind, Himes is particularly tasty bubble-gum for the brain.
Of the verisimilitude of his characters I cannot comment. Harlem in the forties and fifties is as far removed from Cardiff in the ‘teens as I can possibly imagine (I sell myself short of course, but you get the picture) but I am reliably informed that Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are two astonishing but not unlikely examples of the contemporaneous Harlem police detective; the shoot first, question later (if at all) type, not averse to slapping a woman to the floor if rage or the situation dictates. Jackson, Himes’ erstwhile eponymous protagonist (the novel has been known by the title “The Five-Cornered Square”) is a wonderfully effete character, beguiled and bedevilled by con artist and contrary “high yeller woman” Immabelle, and subject to the whims of pretty much every hoodlum and racketeer in the district, including his own brother Goldy, a stool-pigeon and nun-impersonating hop-head.
Reading back through this review, I notice that my usual blend of mellifluous prose (You at the back! Stop that sniggering!) and slightly jaded and crumbly bitterness is oddly absent. I honestly don’t know why, but if you must press for an answer, I would reply that I can’t always be the joker, and that some subjects are worth serious consideration; admittedly, perhaps, not the stylized scribbling of a ex-con, but then I’m having one of those days where my sense of humour seems to have slid down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. Indeed, I must even resort to Monty Python quotes for a cheap laugh. Still, you may benefit from a more studied and sober text, and so revision will be left to the social historians. Who will read this like a gospel of truth, of course.
There’s plenty of social commentary rumbling along beneath the overt racial tension and criminal violence, and like Chandler and Hammett, Himes’ style allows the reader to plug the gaps left for interpretation, engaging the faculties of his audience and making for a satisfying if quick read. If you’ve not dipped into crime fiction before, you could do worse that start at Chester Bomar Himes. A whole lot worse. But if you’re looking to broaden your understanding of modern Black American writing, I’d advise that you start with Ralph Ellison or Tony Morrison and go from there.