The Big Gold Dream: An Appreciation of Chester Himes

by Cedar Sigo

The first book I read by Chester Himes was one of the last he had written, My Life of Absurdity, volume two of his autobiography. Over the years I had encountered several fleeting and exotic details of his expatriate life and wished to finally put them into sequence. I knew that at 19 he had been convicted of armed robbery and sent to prison. During his seven-year sentence he began to write and send out stories to magazines. In 1934 Esquire published To What Red Hell, an account of the 1930 Easter Monday prison fire. After his release he moves to Los Angeles, which will become the backdrop for his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945). The book is published by Doubleday and is well received in literary circles. Himes courted controversy with his second novel Lonely Crusade, an unflattering portrait of the communist party. The book is bombarded with open hostility from both the left- and right-wing critics, and his next two novels, The Third Generation and Cast the First Stone, are rejected out of hand by Alfred A. Knopf.

Feeling that all his bridges have burned, Himes decides to move to Europe in the spring of 1953. Besides my wish to flesh out the narrative of his life, I was hoping My Life of Absurdity might detail the habits of a writer living in Paris. The names of the hotels he checked in and out of and under what circumstances. Did he write in the morning or night? What kind of advances and contracts were secured from his publishers? The autobiography is full of these shaded corner details and, as with any life worth retelling, it is also full of well-known names, Richard Wright, Pablo Picasso, and Malcolm X, among them. I remember wondering how much Himes was being paid per page to complete My Life of Absurdity and thinking that embellished autobiography may be the ultimate form of pulp. How easily the forms of literature can begin to appear to a writer out of pure financial necessity. I began to dream of my own life story as a poet as being worth at least 50 dollars a page and could see how such prospects could lighten the task of beginning a manuscript.

Though initially centered in Paris, Himes moved around quite a bit after his arrival in Europe. He continued work on his new novel, The End of a Primitive, through the south of France, London, and Majorca. In an a 1984 interview, Himes gave a remarkable summary of its plot:

“I put a sexually frustrated American Woman and a racially frustrated black American male together for a weekend in a New York apartment and allowed them to soak in American bourbon. I got the result I was looking for, a nightmare of drunkenness, unbridled sexuality and in the end tragedy.”

In 1955 The End of a Primitive was translated and published in French to poor reviews. Once again at loose ends, Himes was forced to sell his typewriter in order to eat and make his rent. It was during this bleak passage that he ran into Marcel Duhamel, a former surrealist and editor of Gallimard’s popular La Serie Noire crime series. He offered Himes a shot at writing a mystery in the series along with a thousand-dollar advance. The first book he completed for Duhamel was A Rage In Harlem. It would star the detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones and a lost gold mine scam replete with femme fatale. It was first translated into French in 1957 and the title was changed to La Reine des pommes (the queen of fools.) In his autobiography Himes thinks back on the actual writing of the book:

“I would sit in my room and become hysterical thinking about the wild, incredible story I was writing. But it was only for the French, I thought, and they would believe anything about Americans, black or white, if it was bad enough. And I thought I was writing realism. It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference.”

For a novelist as angry as Chester Himes, detective fiction becomes the perfect avenue with which to temper and broaden his style. Duhamel had written to Himes demanding that he “Make pictures. We don’t give a damn whose thinking what—only what they’re doing.” Himes seems a master at evoking atmosphere, whether the action is taking place in a whorehouse, a funeral parlor, or a hearse in a high-speed chase. The eye of his camera is seamless and he is always careful to cradle his characters in very staged lighting. The plot of A Rage in Harlem feels storyboarded then artfully slashed and drowned in Kodachrome color.

“When Jackson took off in the big old Cadillac hearse down Park Avenue, he didn’t know where he was going. He was just running. He clung to the wheel with both hands. His bulging eyes were set in a fixed stare on the narrow strip of wet brick pavement as it curled over the hood like an apple peeling from a knife blade, as though he were driving underneath it. On one side the iron stanchions of the trestle flew past like close set fence pickets, on the other, the store-fronted sidewalk made one long rushing somber kaleidoscope in the gray light before dawn.”

I think part of the heat and possession attained here can be attributed to the fact that this story takes place within Harlem but is being written from across the Atlantic. It is a sort of reverse exoticism in which Himes’ sense of distance becomes an entrance and new-found permission. Would his over-the-top rendering of the Harlem underworld maintain such gleaming edges had he been writing from within America? It’s funny to think of reading A Rage in Harlem all over again but in the “original” French.

“One joker slashed the others arm. A big-lipped wound opened in the tight leather jacket, but nothing came out but old clothes—two sweaters, three shirts, a pair of winter underwear. The second joker slashed back, opened a wound in the front of his foe’s jacket. But all that came out of the wound was dried printers ink from the layers of old newspapers the joker had wrapped about him to keep warm. They kept slashing away at one another like two rag dolls battling in buck-dancing fury, spilling old clothes and last week’s newsprint instead of blood. The customers laughed.”

Any pulp this far ahead of its time will always manage to hover above its assigned genre. Its chapters feel episodic as we see the action from the vantage point of at least three of the main characters. It’s really this crosscutting point of view that begs a film adaptation. When A Rage in Harlem was awarded the Grande Prix de Litterature Policiere in 1958, blaxploitation films were still over ten years away. The closest referents to Himes work in this style were the Maigret novels by George Simenon and the Black Mask writings of Dashell Hammett. The first of Himes novels to be produced as a film was Cotton Comes to Harlem, published in 1965 and directed by Ossie Davis in 1970. A Rage in Harlem was finally filmed in 1991 by Bill Duke starring Forest Whitaker, Danny Glover and Robin Givens.


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