Chester Himes is somewhere laughing. The late master
of the African-American crime fiction novel is laughing because Los
Angeles-based crime fiction writer Gary Phillips, in his fourth and latest
novel, The Jook, makes sure that the genre that Himes virtually defined
continues to maintain its most important traditions. All of the basic
principles that drove Himes's legendary Harlem novels -- honesty, distinctive
characters, absurdity and good writing -- are here in Phillips's work. Mostly,
this offering is character-driven: Phillips, who established himself over the
years with his Ivan Monk books, takes us slowly into the politically incorrect
mind and world of an African-American sports superstar, Zelmont Raines.
The Willamette Week
Donald Goines was holed up in Detroit trying to finish his latest novel, Kenyatta's Last Hit, on the typewriter when the end came. Goines, a former pimp, dope dealer, junkie and ex-con, turned to writing while doing time in prison. He skillfully translated his hard-boiled experiences on the street into equally hard-boiled street literature. As he added the final touches to what would be his 15th novel in a dozen years, Goines was shot through the back of the head with a shot gun. As if foreshadowing his own fate, Goines' final novel killed off his best known character, Kenyatta, the ghetto avenger: "The bullet struck Kenyatta in the back of the head, sending pieces of his shattered skull flying against Clement's oak desk." Given the violent brutality of Goines' books, such as Black Gangster, Crime Partners and Dope Fiend, his demise seemed morbidly poetic.
The still-unsolved murder of Donald Goines in 1974 seemed to bring an end to the blood-splattered tradition of brutal street fiction that entranced fans and inspired modern-day filmmaking. After Goines' death, black crime fiction seemed to fade into obscurity. The art of the written word, and the lurid tales spun by former street-hustlers-turned-authors, have been replaced by gangsta rap. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino have taken the beautifully profane words and gut-churning violence of the genre and placed it on the screen for an audience that has no idea where it came from. Glance over the bookshelves of even the most well-stocked book stores, and it would seem that the black crime novel was doomed to die at the typewriter with Goines. Doomed, that is, until now.
Author Gary Phillips has brought black crime fiction back with a vengeance. Phillips' latest crime novel, The Jook, breathes new life into a genre long thought to be extinct. Phillips' earlier work was in the world of the popular black mystery, which includes authors Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress) and Valerie Wilson Wesley (Where Evil Sleeps). This world of African-American private detectives, populated by Phillips' Ivan Monk and Mosley's Easy Rawlins, is something completely different from the grimy world of black crime fiction--a place few authors have dared to venture in the past two decades. The Jook exists in a reality where the good guys are bad and the bad guys are even worse. It is the world of Iceberg Slim's Trick Baby and Donald Goines' Daddy Cool, where con men and professional killers are the heroes we cheer on to victory. The Jook captures that special ghetto-noir world in all its seedy, depraved glory. Set in present-day Los Angeles, The Jook follows pro-footballer Zelmont Raines on his journey to regain a little of his past glory. Like so many other sports heroes, Raines has fallen from grace. "Three years ago I'd been bounced from the Falcons for failing my random drug test," explains Raines. "And now I was shoveling out buckets of money to lawyers fighting a charge of statutory sodomy rape." Our hero, like all those around him, exists in a morally ambiguous world, where the line separating right and wrong does not exist. Like the colorful characters that populate the worlds of Donald Westlake and Jim Thompson, Phillips has filled The Jook with a cast of unforgettable and morally reprehensible characters. Corrupt sports commissioners, religious zealots, ruthless gangsters, vampish femme fatales, crooked doctors and morally depleted athletes thrive in a cesspool of betrayal and underhanded dealings.
The caper, a scheme to rip-off some gangsters for a cache of loot, is practically irrelevant. The story is really Zelmont Raines himself and how he views the world around him. Painting simple yet strikingly vivid images, Phillips hits the reader with imagery that remains long after the page has been turned--an effect echoed by our hero smoking crack: "The hit had arrived, and I was riding on top of the engine car of the locomotive, the fumes coursing through the corpuscles in my arms, my legs, and into my skull. My ears started tingling. The buzz was on."
Phillips' narrative allows Raines to take us first-hand into his twisted, decadent surroundings, drawing us into a seedy world, where gangsters and professional athletes rub elbows, and everyone is looking to get over on everyone else. Phillips doesn't bother to give us rose-colored glasses to view his protagonist; rather he thrusts Raines on the reader to behold, warts and all. The result is a central character that is a mix of charisma and contemptible behavior. We never truly come to like our hero--he's a complete scumbag--but we are intrigued by his acts of selfishness and the twisted logic he uses to justify them. We become hypnotically transfixed by the destructive trail Raines blazes for himself, wondering when and how it will end--redemption or damnation?
The Jook earns its place among the classics of black crime fiction, at the same time signaling what could be a rebirth of ghetto noir. For those unfamiliar with the particular genre, Phillips' novel is a great place to get started. For those who know and love the gritty world of ghetto fiction, The Jook makes for a great addition to your library. And for authors like Robert Beck and Donald Goines, The Jook stands as a testimony and homage to the trail they helped blaze and the genre they defined.
Portlander David Walker publishes and edits "BadAzz MoFo," a pop-culture magazine specializing in film and African-American culture. He is currently writing a book on blaxploitation and the black image in film.