Back in 1974, young men used to read books like Daddy Cool and The School on 103rd Street. These cult books were the literary equivalent of blaxploitation movies: stories of black action heroes (usually hardened street warriors like pimps, dealers, or hit men) who were trying to get one over on the Man (represented by racist cops, government stooges, or corrupt politicians). A whole generation of inner-city youths cut teeth on these pulp fiction thrillers, yet the authors and books remain unknown outside the ghetto.
With the reissue of these classics by Old School Books (W. W. Norton), Original Gangster literature moves from the ghetto slum to the buppie enclave. In "serious" literary circles, ghetto stars such as Iceberg Slim and Chester Himes are now referred to as "urban realists." Consider yourself warned.
This genre exists in an amoral universe, where "good guys" are sometimes hardened criminals, and by the last page the heroes usually meet a violent end. One of the most popular cult writers was Donald Goines, a heroin addict and ex-con whose 16 books chronicled the brutal and desperate lives of addicts, hustlers, and pimps. Goines's books have remained in print, but Daddy Cool is his first novel to be given the trade paperback treatment.
Although hugely popular, Goines was far from a master prose stylist. Many of his books have hollow characters and laughable plots. His finest book, by far, was this novel about Larry Jackson, better known as Daddy Cool. Although he's the best hired killer money can buy, even Daddy Cool isn't safe from domestic trouble. He's got two lazy stepsons who've turned stickup men, a wife he's outgrown and barely tolerates, and a beloved daughter who's left home to live with her boyfriend, a young pimp on the make. It's taken a toll on Daddy Cool and thrown off his game. A routine assignment, for example, results in the deaths of his mark and an unexpected witness. Things get even worse when he discovers his daughter has started working the streets for her boyfriend.
In Daddy Cool, Goines's plot makes up for his bare-bones writing style. He manages to do the unthinkable: take a standard blaxploitation stereotype and make him into a believable character. Here's the scene where Daddy Cool spots his daughter plying her trade:
"Hey, kitten," he said gently, "I didn't come down here to find you just to see you lookin' blue. I remembered that today was your birthday and hoped maybe we could have dinner or something together."
"Oh, Daddy," she cried; then the floodgates opened and all the pent-up emotions she had been holding back came spilling out. Daddy Cool leaned over and took his daughter in his arms. She cried as though her heart was broken.
As he held her tenderly, he had to fight down a lump that came into his throat. He stroked the back of her head and spoke gently to her. "Now, girl, it ain't nothin' that bad, is there? I know I raised a girl who could just about handle everything that came up."
Goines manages to walk the line between heartfelt sentiment and melodrama. Best of all, he fully explores the complex interrelationships of his characters. And don't worry, there's still plenty of tough gangsta stylin' and explosive violence to make hard-core gangsta rappers look like stone-cold punks. And in a broader sense, Daddy Cool and the other Old School Books titles are important historical and cultural markers for African Americans. Norton deserves acknowledgement for rescuing these otherwise abandoned treasures.
Originally published over a 21-year period (1957-1978), these books and authors fell just outside the limelight created by the Black Arts Movementthat 1960s literary/political movement that advanced social engagement as its banner toward liberation. Eschewing the accommodationist literature of civil rights, the Black Arts Movement aspired only to black power. Among its early progenitors were writers Tom Dent, Ishmael Reed, Larry Neal, and Rosa Guy and poets Dudley Randall and Amiri Baraka, the movement's acknowledged founder. The literary movement coalesced in 1965, holding tightly together until 1975-1976.
But Old School Books authors found themselves in a double bind. As a genre, they were dependent on acceptance by the established politic for finance and publication. The New Negro Movement and glow of the Harlem Renaissance had long passed, and the perceived value of African-American fiction was minimal.
The Black Arts Movement, ignited by performance poetry spoken in popular rhetoric and vernacular, sparked mass appeal. While poetry flourished (the Last Poets, Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks), black fiction took a back seat. Simultaneously, as the Black Arts Movement spoke of community and liberation, the themes addressed by Old School authors made them politically incorrect pariahs: "Player and hustlers...mack daddies and racketeers...cops on the take and girls on the make" reads one introduction.
Apparently, time has rehabilitated (and exonerated) these authors, now warmly embraced in the hip-hop era. "They take the brutality and ruin of the urban black landscape and transform them into art," says The Source. In Old School Books, one can find a dramatic recounting of black life on the hard track. Welcome back.