The Harlem shuffle: Chester Himes’s crime fiction

September 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

A Rage in Harlem. Chester Himes; $12.00 paper 978-0-141-19644-2, 214 pp., Penguin Books

It’s inexplicable why Chester Himes is not better known or more widely read today. The author’s ten hard-boiled crime novels featuring the detective team of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones have been compared to Chandler, but have been largely unavailable in recent years. Penguin Modern Classics has done an invaluable service by reissuing three of them – A Rage in Harlem, The Heat’s On, and The Real Cool Killers in widely available, modestly priced paperback editions.

The first novel in the series, A Rage in Harlem (1957), was originally called For Love of Imabelle, but the alternate title stuck because, as Luc Sante points out in his excellent introduction, “it combined two nouns guaranteed to act as flint and steel in the mind of the average 1950s American drugstore paperback browser.” This attitude itself attests to the kind of pervasive and systemic racism that Himes spent most of his writing life protesting. Indeed, the author commented that “The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books.”

Himes’s version of Harlem is a seething, roiling place where passions – both violent and sexual – can erupt in a heartbeat, or the flick of a switchblade. In at least one instance in his novel, extremes of sex and violence are explicitly conjoined: a con man who has his throat slashed is described “jerking and twisting … in death convulsions as though having a frantic sex culmination with an unseen mate.”

Elsewhere, Harlem is depicted in terms that combine a brand of kitchen-sink realism with a dash of Daliesque surrealism:

Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.

That is Harlem.

It is by no means accidental that Himes insists on situating Harlem in a valley below the Hudson, or imagining the “city of black people … convulsed in desperate living” as existing underwater. It was white America that lived in a mansion on a hill; black Americans were jammed together in decrepit tenement dwellings where they eked out meagre existences, feeding on one another like “millions of hungry cannibal fish.”

Tim Lawlor points out that the train whistle cutting through the Harlem air in the novel offers a potent symbol of white capitalism that is similarly degraded and debased among the desperate denizens of the neighbourhood. “The fact that the train ‘thunders past overhead’ emphasises the futility of the situation: the black community are unable to stop something so established and powerful that relentlessly circles their city and traps them within.” Trapped inside the suffocating confines of their cannibalistic community, the men and women of Harlem have no choice but to turn to crime, which cannot end happily for them. It is also not an accident that Jackson, Himes’s hapless protagonist, works at a funeral parlour and spends much of the latter part of the novel trying to make off with a cache of what he believes to be gold secreted in the back of a hearse. The explicit images of death testify to the futility Lawlor identifies, a futility many of Himes’s characters fall victim to.

The rage – or righteous fury – that Himes felt about the institutional racism in America infuses his Harlem crime novels, but does so in a less overt or didactic way than in his earlier, non-genre novels, such as his well-regarded debut, If He Hollers Let Him Go. Much of this is due to the way in which A Rage in Harlem and its successors came to be written.

Himes was born into a middle-class family from Missouri, moved to Arkansas when he was twelve, then to Ohio. He was expelled from university for a prank and later arrested on an armed robbery charge, a conviction that came with a sentence of twenty to twenty-five years. He began writing in prison and published articles in various magazines, including Esquire. He was paroled after seven years and published his first novel in 1940, following which he spent a brief time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, an experience that solidified his hatred for American society. In the book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Mike Davis writes that “Himes encountered an implacable wall of racism in Hollywood. As his biographer describes the incident, ‘he was promptly fired from … Warner Brothers when Jack Warner heard about him and said, “I don’t want no niggers on this lot.”‘”

Following in the footsteps of black American writers such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Himes emigrated to Paris in 1953; he would never return to live in the United States. In France, he encountered Marcel Duhamel, the editor in charge of Gallimard’s series of crime novels, La Série Noir. Duhamel convinced Himes to write for the series and, in so doing, helped Himes find his mature voice, which was of necessity stripped of pretense and hauteur. As Sante writes:

Himes had been a difficult writer – difficult in his bitterness, alienation, obsessiveness, and self-consciousness, as well as formally difficult at time[s]. Now, however, the narrative conventions of the genre (“Make pictures,” Duhamel told him. “We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what – only what they’re doing”) forced Himes to channel all his preoccupations without betraying them, to proceed by stealth and indirection, to mask his rage as humour, to transfer his focus from himself to the diverse and particular inhabitants of an entire teeming world, to trade his defensiveness for a gleeful assault on all fronts, and to treat social issues with an apparent insouciance that would penetrate the defences of his readers. Popular fiction, popularly considered narrow, broadened Himes as a writer.

Sante’s reference to humour is significant, since in addition to its other merits, A Rage in Harlem is a very funny book. (As Flannery O’Connor once said of her first novel, “It is a comic novel … and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”) Much of the novel’s humour is centred around Jackson’s twin brother Goldy, who dresses as a nun and sells the religiously motivated citizens of Harlem passes into heaven: “No one who noticed thought it strange for a Sister of Mercy to kick a cur dog in the ribs, enter a dope den, and quote enigmatic Scripture to reefer-smoking delinquents.” In other cases, the humour is situational, as when Jackson tries to escape the police by commandeering a horse-drawn carriage:

Jackson lashed the nag’s rump, trying to get away. The junkman ran after him in a shuffling gait. Both horse and man moved so slowly it seemed to Jackson as though the whole world had slowed down to a crawl.

“Hey, he stealin’ my wagon.”

A cop looked around at Jackson.

“Are you stealing this man’s wagon?”

“Nawsuh, dat’s mah pa. He can’t see well.”

The junkman clutched the cop’s sleeve.

“Ah ain’t you pa and Ah sees enough to see that you is stealing my wagon.”

“Pa, you drunk,” Jackson said.

The novel’s humour bleeds from satire into absurdist farce, and frequently gives way to sudden violence in a manner that prefigures the films of Quentin Tarantino by more than thirty years. Himes also anticipates Tarantino’s affinity for colourful lowlifes and corrupt lawmen. But he does so within a milieu that, exaggerated and fictionalized though it may be, cuts an incisive line through the social and economic conditions that kept black Americans down in the pre-Civil Rights era of the late 1950s and early ’60s.

The novel’s plot, concerning a trio of criminals who cheat the naive Jackson out of all his money, and Jackson’s increasingly desperate attempts to redeem himself, is almost beside the point. What is most important is the social canvas that serves as Himes’s backdrop, and the vibrant eccentrics who people his story. Ignore Bill Duke’s watered-down 1991 film version and seek out the Modern Classics edition of this potent novel. You won’t be disappointed.