Chester Himes: A Lifeby James Sallis
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Chester Himes's novels and memoirs represent one of the most important bodies of work by any American writer, but he is best known for The Harlem Cycle, the crime stories featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. His writing made him a major figure in Europe, but it is only recently that his talents have been acknowledged in the country that spurned him for most of his life, though his work is recognized as being on a par with that of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Jim Thompson.
In this major literary biography, acclaimed poet, critic, and novelist James Sallis explores Himes's life as no writer has attempted before. Combining the public facts with fresh interviews with the people who knew him best, including his second wife, Lesley, Sallis casts light onto the contradictions, self-interrogations, and misdirections that make Himes such an enigmatic and elusive subject. Chester Himes: A Life is a definitive study not only of the life of a major African-American man of letters, but of his writing and its relationship to the man himself, drawing a remarkable, deeply affecting portrait of a too often misunderstood and neglected writer. This is a work of high scholarship and of penetrating and passionate insight, a rare conjoining of two fine writers-and as much a work of literature as any of their novels.
- Bloomsbury USA
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1. Unnatural Histories
"That's my life-the third generation out of slavery,"1 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 . . . we would be drooling idiots, dangerous maniacs, raving beasts-if it were not for that quality and force within all humans that cries "I will live."2
Himes knew a great deal about such assaults-about assaults of every sort. Champion Ishmael Reed3 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,"4 it is.
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?"5 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.
Much like his work, Himes's life is filled with contradictions and uncertainties, sudden turns, stabs of violence, dark centers at the heart of light. In his time he was no easy man to know; time's filters haven't changed that. There is so much of the life, so many things done, so many places lived, so many apparent selves and so rich an internal life, that, every bit as much as his fiction, Himes's life seems always overblown, exaggerated, too vivid-as though all experience has been rendered down to one single dark, rich stock. One often feels that it is only the centripetal force of the tensions within him that keeps Himes's world from flying wholly apart. He seems a man who must always work everything out for himself and by himself, creating self and world anew with each effort at understanding, "remaining always (in critic Gilbert Muller's words) radical and unforgiving."6
Whatever they and their jacket notes claim, the majority of writers lead dull lives. They spend much of their lives alone in rooms staring at blank pages or half-filled screens. When not in those rooms, they wander half-lost about the house, quarrel with wives and lovers, drink, worry about their work going out of print or not finding a publisher, read new books to see who might be getting a leg up on them, share with other writers complaints over the horrible state of publishing.
Himes's life, on the other hand, is at least as fascinating as his fiction.
Meet the Author
James Sallis is the author of more than two dozen volumes of fiction, poetry, translation, essays, and criticism, including the Lew Griffin cycle and Drive. His biography of the great crime writer Chester Himes is an acknowledged classic. Sallis lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife, Karyn, and an enormous white cat.
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