Chester B. Himes Tobi Haslett

Harlem detectives, erotic exorcisms, black intellectuals: the life of an American novelist.

Chester B. Himes: A Biography, by Lawrence P. Jackson, W.W. Norton & Company, 606 pages, $35

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“Stolen,” “absent,” “poverty,” “loss”; words with un- or in-, or that end in -less: we tell the story of black suffering in a bored, starved language that draws its gravitas—its soaring moral seriousness—from a tragic notion of lack. Somehow this notion was itself lacking in the life and fiction of Chester Himes. His was a pain that bubbled, thickened, burst, leapt, and grew. His hates were extravagant, his traumas ornate, his contradictions so vicious and monstrously magnified that he seemed to shoot through life like an internal-combustion engine, subject to repeated explosions that forced him forward even as they shook him to the bone. Jim Crow and eight years in prison revealed to young Chester how the state could smash the self—so he would spend much of his writing life brandishing his own jagged fragments, brashly proclaiming his psychological tortures in a way that proved how massive and ingenious—how truly marvelous—they were. In his mid-sixties, after sixteen novels, he published a memoir called The Quality of Hurt. Three years later, he published another: a sequel of sorts, with a title that telegraphed his own frantic amazement: My Life of Absurdity

That Lawrence P. Jackson, a professor of English and history at Johns Hopkins, has just released a biography of Himes may therefore seem to be a kind of redundancy. It isn’t. Jackson’s Chester B. Himes carries out its task with thoroughness and tenderness, holding its subject with a grip that both captures and caresses. We dip in and out of the Himes mythology, emerging at the end with a sensitive, perturbing comprehension of this man for whom operatic self-exposure was the initial literary impulse. 

Himes was born in Missouri in 1909, to parents from the black middle class—that fearful, striving people shuddering violently within their complexes. His mother Estelle swung between disappointment and delusion. She was “color struck”: lighter-skinned than her husband, she sailed through Chester’s childhood with a doomed sense of entitlement and a pathological attention to infinitesimal differences in social class, sneering at the poor and sequestering her children from blacks more readily recognizable as such. So Himes was sealed in the asphyxiating little world of his mother’s snobbish embrace, an embrace broken, finally, by grief. 

An episode from the family’s years in Mississippi: while performing a chemistry experiment at a school assembly, Chester’s brother Joe miscalculates the ingredients. A burst of smoke swallows his face, shooting ground glass into his eyes. The events that follow deliver a psychic laceration to pretty, witty, caramel-colored Chester. Joe, in magnificent pain, is driven to the hospital. The doctors inform the family that he cannot be admitted; they only treat white patients. The pleading of the Himeses—and of Joe’s high school principal—proves useless, so Chester’s father, through desperate tears, drives to another hospital that—being the kind that does treat blacks—obviously doesn’t have the necessary instruments to remove the glass particles. The following day, Estelle travels with Joe to a facility in St. Louis where he will receive expensive, long-term treatment that will forever shatter the family’s finances. She will take lodging in the city to care for her blinded child.

The family, rattled, unraveled. Chester became a slacker, his youthful rebellion an oblique response to his parents’ heightened sense of crisis and humiliation. “Struggling to come to grips with the devastation of his family,” writes Jackson, “he had found a convenient, lifelong scapegoat: the blacks of the middle class and their pretentiousness.” He enrolled in and was expelled from school. He went to jail for fraud; then he went to prison for armed robbery, and received a twenty-year sentence (that was eventually truncated). Prison formed him, exposing him to indignities, brutal constraints, and extreme cruelties that scraped away the vestigial privileges of his class. In 1930, a cell-block tower caught fire, incinerating the prisoners, most of whom weren’t released from their cells until the flames had claimed all six tiers. In two hours, 322 convicts were killed.

Chester survived, but had been given a second lesson in his own political worthlessness. Reeling, he began to write, eventually publishing stories in the newly established Esquire, an arrangement that continued after his release in 1936. The early work provided what Jackson calls “the sort of titillated yelp” that befitted the rookie venture. First there were fictional sketches of prisoners who, like Chester, found themselves performing a botched psychoanalysis of their incarcerated condition, and like Chester, had sex with—and grew deeply, painfully attached to—other men. Unlike Chester, these protagonists were white.

If He Hollers Let Him Go, his first published novel (after several failed, flailing tries), would secure his place in the black intellectual firmament. The book was an erotic exorcism, a stabbing examination of his lust—and resentful contempt—for white women. (He had renounced homosexuality.) Malcolm X was moved by the work, and Frantz Fanon would cite it in Black Skin, White Masks. But Himes was a contemporary (and uneasy friend) of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison; his stardom was soon forced into the faint, blinking distance. They were all scrambling to conquer the pitiful patch of territory that the white literary establishment had allotted to the so-called Negro question, and their feuds, betrayals, and twitching, petty dismissals are catalogued with patient, compassionate attention in this book. Existentialism wafted in from Paris, black nationalism sprouted in the States, Africans slashed the artery that had kept them linked to Britain and France. Alliances shifted and reputations rose and crashed, as a whole miniature world sprinted to keep pace with a revolutionary age and its blurring moral styles. 

But the biography’s richest texture lies in Jackson’s evocation of the needling frustrations that marked the dry spell between If He Hollers and Himes’s eventual decision, as an expat in Paris, to start writing his Harlem detective novels—starring Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, two detectives sloshing messily in a world of spilt blood, duplicitous prostitutes, elaborate heists, con men dressed as nuns, and trunks full of gold. Between the screaming confessionalism of the early work and the slick, swerving plots of the later genre fiction, Jackson gives us a punctilious account of Himes’s pitiful book advances, his miniscule embarrassments, his brief periods of success and even briefer flashes of happiness. The charging narrative thrust is leavened by psychological insight; the tremendous personal tribulation is made comprehensible, in part, by a thick padding of history. The last phase of Himes’s life is spent with a series of white women—objects of sparkling fantasy and bilious derision for our miserable hero as he trudges into old age, his neuroses dragging behind him as if on a chain. Jackson leaves us, then, with a sense of this particular psyche, with its particular hungers, its particular defeats—but one always gesticulating at some broader picture, some grander understanding, of blackness, of maleness, and of weakness. 

Tobi Haslett was born in New York. He has written about art, film, and literature for n+1, The New Yorker, Artforum, The Village Voice, and elsewhere. He is currently a doctoral student in English at Yale. 

Harlem detectives, erotic exorcisms, black intellectuals: the life of an American novelist
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