Absurdity, Rage, and Fame

For all its inconsistencies, its contradictions, its humiliations, its triumphs, its failures, its tragedies, its hurts, its ecstasies and its absurdities; that’s my life — the third generation out of slavery.

—the concluding sentence of My Life of Absurdity by Chester Himes

July 29, 1909: If the absurdity in Chester Himes’s life – born this day in 1909 — derived from mischance or mistake, it was often compounded by racism. At the age of thirteen Himes played a role in the accidental blinding of his teenaged brother, an event which triggered lifelong guilt and anger:

We pulled into the emergency entrance of a white people’s hospital. White clad doctors and attendants appeared. I remember sitting in the back seat with Joe watching the pantomime being enacted in the car’s bright lights. A white man was refusing; my father was pleading. Dejectedly my father turned away; he was crying like a baby. My mother was fumbling in her handbag for a handkerchief; I hoped it was for a pistol.

Himes got his first pistol when he was kicked out of Ohio State University and took to the streets. Two suspended sentences only encouraged him to trade up his .32 and petty crime for a Colt .44 and armed robbery. Before long, he was caught for jacking an elderly Cleveland couple’s Cadillac and jewelry. The Caddie got stuck in the mud, and when the pawnshop owner went into the back room with the jewelry Himes just stood there: “I suspected he was calling the police…. But I couldn’t run; never could run.” Handcuffed at the feet and hands, he was hung upside down from a door and pistol-whipped into a confession.

The absurdity continued at Ohio State Penitentiary, where one con was murdered for not passing the bread, two killed each other over whether Paris was in France or France in Paris, and 330 died in a fire that swept through the overcrowded cells. But while doing time — he served just seven-and-a-half of his twenty-five-year sentence — Himes learned to channel his rage into his writing. He eventually gave up his social protest novels for crime-writing, finding fame with A Rage in Harlem and the seven other “Harlem Domestic” novels featuring the detectives “Coffin” Ed Jones and “Gravedigger” Johnston, these written in a twelve year burst in the late 50s and 60s. By this time, Himes had moved to Europe for racial reasons; while writing his two volumes of autobiography he could walk the Paris streets and see himself advertised as “The Greatest Find in American Crime Fiction Since Raymond Chandler.”