Authors: James Sallis
To Lesley Himes
and in memory of Chester
It is exceedingly strange to know so well a man one has never met. For a year and a half now my days have been spent in the company of Chester Himes. He had of course been with me, though not so intimately, far longer. I began reading Himes thirty years ago, first wrote of him some sixteen or seventeen years back. My own series of detective novels (one of them dedicated to his memory, in another of which Himes actually appears) began in part as homage.
I first came to Himes in the late sixties, in the wake of a newfound fascination with crime fiction. Introduced to Chandler and Hammett by Mike Moorcock while in London editing
magazine and having read their entire output in short order, upon returning to the States I looked about for more. On shelves at a friend's house I came across several paperbacks by Chester Himes. They were small books, wafer thin, with limp cardboard covers; a decade before, they had sold for thirty-five cents. I read them and went looking for others. As is my habit, I also tried to find out about the author of these strange, savagely comic novels, but no one seemed to know anything of him. A couple of years later the movie of
Cotton Comes to Harlem
arrived. I saw it while living in New York City, stepping over homeless folk asleep in the doorway as I came back at night to my downtown apartment.
For a time then, I didn't read Himes, and when again I felt the pull (for, perennially, his work collects me back to itself), his books had become difficult to find. Virtually all wereâagainâout of print. Haunting used bookstores, I unearthed ravaged copies of
For Love of Imabelle, The Crazy Kill, The Big Gold Dream
. I unearthed also, in time,
Pinktoes, If He Hollers Let Him Go
âand something titled
. This last, which I found and still find profoundly unsettling,
certainly like nothing I had read before, I've since come to regard as one of America's great novels.
What I discovered was that Himes had a second or more accurately a first career as a “literary” writer, beginning with stories published in
in the company of such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, and Bertrand Russell. He had written those
stories, moreover, while in prison. A much-acclaimed first novel was followed by two or three others. Then Chester Himes had fallen off the edge of the earth, sending back one last urgent message,
, a novel written not in fire, but in the glare and dead-white light of too many three o'clock mornings. No one I spoke to had ever read it.
Himes had not dropped off the face of the earth, of course, but had gone to Europe to write his detective stories, and as I read backward from them through the earlier books, then on into the two-volume autobiography, my picture of Himes changed radically. I'd begun seeing him simply as an extension of American crime fiction, one of the first great documenters of the inner city, but increasingly I came to perceive him as I do now: as America's central black writer. Himes stood squarely at the crossroad of tradition and innovation, shaking together in his mix remains of the Harlem Renaissance, the energies of newly developing genre fictions, African-American tropes, and arealist storytelling styles, the found life of the streets about him. Again and again he told his story of great promises forever gone unfulfilled, of men who perish from hunger in the shadow of statues of plenty and perish from lack of thought in the shade of great ideas, creating a literature in its absolute individuality, in its strange power and quirkiness, in its cruelty and cockeyed compassion, ineffably American.
Chester Himes was, or could be, a difficult man; he remains a difficult writer. Offering up little comfort or safe ground to the ideologue, he stood, sometimes by choice, always by inclination, at a hard right angle to the world. Nothing in
world is simple, nothing there can be taken for granted, ever. Neither he nor his characters fulfill our expectations. One moment likable, the next despicable, they refuse to behave as we wish them to; they are their own worst enemies as much as they are (and they are all) victims. The sources of their rage are deep, irrational, unquenchable. As readers we are, as Himes intended, forever off balance. The work gets to us. It's unsettling, disconcerting,
Do the Right Thing
The Color Purple
, as critic Gerald Houghton has put it, and as a quote from Himes's first novel,
If He Hollers Let Him Go
Reactionaries hate the truth and the world's rulers fear it; but it embarrasses the liberals, perhaps because they can't do anything about it.
Biography at once can be, perhaps must be, an act of admiration and a betrayal. Certainly in some regard it violates its subject, distorting and simplifying, forcing complex events, thoughts, and actions into superficial patterns, seeking to sweep up thousands of shimmering, mobile,
moments in its nets. As biographers we take our brief from Goethe:
For it seems to be the main object of biographyâto exhibit the man in relation to the features of his time, and to show to what extent they have opposed or favored his progress; what view of mankind and the world he has formed from them, and how far he himself, if an artist, poet, or author, may externally reflect them.
Yet even Freud believed biographical truth unattainable. The biographer, he held, pledges himself to tell and to countenance lies, to become the hypocrite, to cover things up or paint them in glowing colors. “Remember that what you are told is really threefold,” Nabokov warns us in
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
, “shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale.” Or as Stanislaw Lem considers in
His Master's Voice
. “With sufficient imagination one might easily write a dozen, three dozen, versions of any life, a union of sets in which the facts would be the only elements in common.”
Finally, then, the biographer's brief, like that of the novelist or poet, is to construct not an imitation of the world but an alternate for it, a stand-in, an understudy, a
âfrom the Latin: a shaping. To do this he must not only select more or less arbitrarily from the vast array of data available but also invent structures that will hold those selections in place.
Properly speaking, biography is a subgenre of history, literary biography its bastard offspring in that it is precisely literature that forever seeks to
history, to allay its indifference to the individual, its smothering generalities, what we would call in the human being its lack of affect.
“It is perhaps as difficult to write a good life as to lead one,” Lytton Strachey declared. As writers we finish each book knowing we've failed yet again to bring down that vision of which we caught so many glimpses sitting alone in our rooms late at night or in the dull, repetitious purr of dawn. The whole time we biographers are at work, four years, or ten, or eighteen months, we wrestle with the angels of art and try to hold at bay the devils of history, waging war, as much as with the material given us, with “our own defenses and blocked memories and self-deceptions.” That last is from Leon Edel, and it's the magnificent, sustaining example of his Henry James that I've tried to keep in mind through these months of absorption.
Time now to gather up this poor little thing from the filing cabinet atop which it's lived all these months, fattening daily, and send it out into the world.
Here, then, is my version of one man's reality, Chester Himes as I've come to know him. And yet, for all this, he remains a mystery, as we must, all of us, remain mysteries to one another. For it is in that very search, in trying to know the other, that all our art begins and ends.
It is exceedingly strange to know so little, finally, about a man with whom you have spent so much time.
“That's my lifeâthe third generation out of slavery,”
Chester Himes ended his 1976 autobiography, a book striking off in so many directions, encompassing so much, that it seems one life could never have contained all this.
Almost thirty years before, in a speech before a mixed audience at the University of Chicago on “The Dilemma of the Negro Writer in the United States,” sounding remarkably like one of his models, Faulkner, Himes had written:
There is an indomitable quality within the human spirit that cannot be destroyed; a face deep within the human personality that is impregnable to all assaults â¦ we would be drooling idiots, dangerous maniacs, raving beastsâif it were not for that quality and force within all humans that cries “I will live.”
Himes knew a great deal about such assaultsâabout assaults of every sort. Champion Ishmael Reed
reminds us that by the time Himes reached the age of nineteen, he'd suffered more misfortune than most people experience in a lifetime. Already Himes had survived his parents' contempt and acrimony for one another, his father's slow slide into failure's home plate, his mother's crippling blend of pride and self-hatred, the childhood blinding of brother Joe for which he felt responsible, subterranean life among Cleveland's gamblers, hustlers, and high rollers, and, finally, a forty-foot plunge down an elevator shaft that crushed vertebrae, shattered bones, and, though he recovered, left him in a Procrustean brace for years and in pain for the remainder of his life. He'd go on to survive eight years in a state prison, early acclaim as a writer followed by attacks and, far worse, indifference, an
ever-mounting sense of failure and frustration, tumultuous affairs leading in one case almost to murder, and, as Himes never lets us forget, a lifetime of pervasive, inescapable racial prejudice.
Hardly a representative life? Actually, “for all its inconsistencies, its contradictions, its humiliations, its triumphs, its failures, its tragedies, its hurts, its ecstasies and its absurdities,”
In prison Himes had come to believe that people will do anything, absolutely anything. “Why should I be surprised when white men cut out some poor black man's nuts, or when black men eat the tasty palms of white explorers?”
This belief, along with his own inner turmoil, accounts in large part for the level of violence and abrupt shifts of plot in his work, not to mention the absurd comedy, that so distinguish it. We grow to expect sudden desperate acts from characters who in fact often seem little more than a series of such acts strung together. Pianos and drunken preachers may fall from the sky, children may be fed from troughs like barnyard animals, stolen automobile wheels may roll on their own through most of Harlem, precipitating a chain of unrelated, calamitous events. In Himes's absurd world, Aristotelian logic holds no purchase; neither characters nor readers may rely on cause and effect. We can't anticipate the consequences of acts, have no way to predict what might be around the next corner, on the next page. It could be literally anything. So we're forever off balance, handholds having turned to razors, cups of wine to blood. We look out from eyes filled with a nebulous, free-floating fear that never leaves us. We can depend on nothing, expect anything. And nothing is safe.