Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Book Reviews

You Know This

A neglected hard-boiled novelist wrote on the greatest conspiracy of all.

John Thomason

Portrait of Chester Himes (detail), 2017, by Chr!s Visions, chrisvisions.com.

The novelist Chester Himes (1909–84) did not begin writing seriously until he had been incarcerated at the Ohio State Penitentiary for more than a year. He had become a fan of Dashiell Hammett after reading a serialized version of The Maltese Falcon in his cell. The world outside was in the throes of the Great Depression, and Himes, a prodigious gambler, ironically had more disposable income than he would have had as a free man. So he bought a typewriter on the convicts’ black market, and on a diet of short genre fiction that he read in Black Mask, Cosmopolitan, and the Saturday Evening Post, he set to work producing similar stories of his own.

Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain did not invent the crime and detective fiction that was popular around this time, but their modernist sensibilities and careful styling bridged the gap between mass-market fiction and highbrow art. That almost all of this could also be said of Chester Himes makes the frequent absence of his name alongside these proto-noir writers particularly striking. To understand Himes’s fraught position within the hard-boiled canon, it’s important to set aside the many similarities between these writers and highlight one difference: Chester Himes was black.

Thus, while Hammett, Chandler, and Cain are remembered as writers with an original analysis of American society or even modernity itself, Himes is most frequently written about as one whose gaze was turned primarily inward. A representative essay by Thomas Chatterton Williams describes Himes as “obsessed [with] the psychological toll of being ‘black.’” Even in his excellent recent biography of Himes, the prolific writer and academic Lawrence Jackson chooses to read him as a novelist whose gift “ultimately resided with his interior portrait of black life.”

But Himes’s work was always interested in something else. The theorist Fredric Jameson recently claimed that the greater part of modern American literature is tainted by some fidelity to an “abstract intellectual illusion” about the United States: of the organic unity of its people, the inviolability of its freedoms, and the wisdom of its Constitution. Only the detective novel à la Chandler, he argues, was capable portraying America entirely in microcosm, as Americans actually experienced it: atomized, corrupt, and ruled by “naked force and money.”

It was this tension—between idealized America and lived America—that Himes too was trying to articulate. And he was able to do so with considerably less abstraction. Ultimately, Himes argued that the myths of America in macrocosm would always be usurped by the ideology that ruled the microcosmic experience of actually being an American. That ideology was white supremacy.

Himes was born in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1909. His parents, who had both been born in Georgia to recently emancipated slaves, met in 1900, just as Himes’s father was promoted to director of the industrial department at a black college in Savannah. Abolition had opened an extraordinary window of opportunity that Mr. and Mrs. Himes seized by going to college. But by the birth of their third son, Chester, that window was closing. The family bounced around the South and Midwest chasing the diminishing prospects faced by a black teacher of blacksmithing. Jim Crow sharply devalued the social currency that Chester’s mother, who gave up her own teaching career to care for the family, had previously commanded with her education, manners, and multiracial ancestry. The specter of white vigilante violence loomed ever larger. The Himes family, intelligent and tight knit though they were, splintered under this pressure.

A precocious but unmotivated student, Himes found himself an Ohio State University dropout at age seventeen, living in a cramped rented room with his father on Cedar Avenue in Cleveland. While the former college professor swept floors from midnight to eight, his son ventured deep into the city’s Mafia-dominated underworld. In what appears to have been a spontaneous act of emotional desperation, Himes robbed a rich couple at gunpoint after breaking into their suburban home. He fled to Chicago, where he was apprehended. The police secured his confession by hanging him upside down and beating him brutally. Since it was his third arrest, he was sentenced to twenty years.

Himes arrived at the overcrowded Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus a few days after Christmas in 1928. On April 21, 1930, a fire broke out on the prison grounds. Prison officials, concerned primarily with the potential for escape, opened the cells slowly and reluctantly. Three hundred convicts died; the fire was one of the deadliest in US history. The survivors refused to return to their cells, and what ensued was an orgy of sex, gambling, and Cab Calloway tunes blaring from the chapel organ. The Ohio National Guard squared off with the militant prisoners for thirty-six hours.

Himes began writing after the fire. In November 1932, his first published story (“His Last Day,” about a black convict on his way to the electric chair) appeared in Abbott’s Monthly. By 1934, he was hoping to reach broader audiences, which in large part meant making his white characters more prominent. In August of that year he debuted in an issue of Esquire that also featured the work of Ernest Hemingway, Leon Trotsky, and Ezra Pound.

After his early release from prison, Himes worked a series of dead-end jobs before moving with his wife, Jean, to Los Angeles, hoping to find screenwriting and consulting work on Hollywood prison films. But Hollywood, too, was unwelcoming. After Himes secured a job as a reader for Warner Bros., studio head Jack Warner himself intervened to stop the hire. “I don’t want no n-----s on my lot,” he shouted at Himes’s supervisor. But Himes also benefited from the goodwill of Langston Hughes, one of his early supporters in Cleveland and a close friend, who introduced him to black intellectuals and leftists in Los Angeles. Supported by this milieu and deeply shaken by the post–Pearl Harbor internment of Japanese Americans, Himes became a “double V internationalist,” committed to the defeat of fascism abroad and Jim Crow, its domestic form, at home.

Himes distilled the social and political convulsions of wartime LA into his debut novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, released by Doubleday in 1945. The book is narrated by Bob Jones, a black supervisor at a shipyard who, with persistent dread, anger, and disgust, navigates a social world in which his subordination is both assumed and unacknowledged:

When I got here practically the only job a Negro could get was service in the white folks’ kitchens. But it wasn’t that so much. It was the look on the people’s faces when you asked them about a job. Most of ’em didn’t say right out they wouldn’t hire me. They just looked so goddamned startled that I’d even asked. As if some friendly dog had come in through the door and said, “I can talk.” It shook me.

The threat of punitive racial violence hangs over the novel from its opening pages. Bob remarks that he has been waking up frightened since the beginning of the war: “Maybe I’d been scared all my life, but I didn’t know about it until after Pearl Harbor.” But the war also holds out the promise of greater opportunity. He owes his job as a shipyard supervisor, the most lucrative and prestigious he’s ever held, to Executive Order 8802, which prohibited employment discrimination in wartime industry and was the first federal action in support of equal opportunity and nondiscrimination in employment in US history.

But Bob’s mobility—and his mental health—is threatened by his white coworkers and supervisors. A white worker, Madge, refuses to work with him and calls him a “n-----.” Impulsively, Bob reacts: “Screw you then, you cracker bitch!” Bob is disciplined and Madge is not. Mac, the department superintendent—who, like all the white employees, calls Bob and the other black men “boys”—tells him it’s for losing his temper. Mac implores Bob to be patient with the Southern employees as they get used to working alongside black employees. But eventually Mac loses his own temper and reveals the real reason for the discipline: “What makes me so mad with you is, goddamnit, you know this. I don’t have to tell you what could have happened by your cursing a white woman, you know as well as I do.”

Mac demotes Bob and appoints a white man in his place. When he points out that the demotion means Bob could face the draft, Bob’s heart sinks: “All of a sudden I got that crazy, scared feeling I’d waked up with that morning…like the Japanese getting pulled up by the roots.” Staring down the threat of both bodily and social death, Bob becomes determined to kill a white man, to refute the powerlessness that these ever-present threats are meant to enforce.

Six years after Himes’s novel was published, James Baldwin cited it as symptomatic of a “climate of anarchy and unmotivated and unapprehended disaster” that characterized a whole genre of black social-realist fiction in the tradition of Richard Wright’s Native Son. On a first reading, Baldwin’s critique seems fair: Much of the novel depicts Bob driving the streets of LA in search of some outlet for his rage and anguish, knocking back hard liquor at a series of seemingly interchangeable bars.

But if these features make If He Hollers Let Him Go anarchic, they are also part of what make it a quintessentially “hard-boiled” novel in the tradition of Chandler, Hammett, and Cain. Himes shared with them not only a language—marked by clipped, idiomatic, and often monosyllabic constructions—but also a preoccupation with senseless violence, menacing urban tableaux, pervasive corruption, and, above all, the struggle of individual men to forge meaning through rash action in an uncaring, fallen world.

These elements endeared the hard-boiled writers to French existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre, who in the postwar years found themselves thoroughly disillusioned with collective politics. They hoped to articulate an ethos of redemptive individualism to counter their despair, and they felt that America’s modernist novelists, less burdened by history than their European counterparts, had already done much of the work. It’s no coincidence that both Himes and Richard Wright (whom Sartre deeply admired) eventually made permanent homes for themselves in France. The two became friends after the publication of If He Hollers Let Him Go, which Wright—then America’s most famous black novelist—had boosted with a strong review. In the United States, the two would always be black novelists first and foremost. But in France, they could take a stab at just being novelists.

The French, of course, would end up tokenizing them in their own way. In 1956 Marcel Duhamel, who had translated If He Hollers Let Him Go, asked Himes to write a “Negro detective story” for his crime fiction series La Série Noire. Himes quickly surmised that the hip surrealist “wanted this Negro to be a clown,” but he badly needed the cash. So he quickly read Faulkner’s Sanctuary, a favorite of French intellectuals at the time, and hurriedly pumped out For Love of Immabelle, a piece of grotesquerie about a fat and hapless Harlemite named Jackson and his cross-dressing con-man brother, Goldy. Duhamel reminded him that a detective story needed cops, so Himes conjured up Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, the world-weary black sleuths who ultimately anchored eight of his novels.

Himes’s detective novels were a critical and commercial success in France, but the initial US response was ambivalent. “Himes writes about the America that a European likes to believe in,” wrote New York Times critic Anthony Boucher in 1959, “a lurid world of squalor and oppression and hatred and meaningless violence.” Nonetheless, Himes’s star in black literary circles slowly recovered: Anticolonialists and internationalists like Ousmane Sembène, Frantz Fanon, and Carlos Moore found inspiration in his uncompromising militancy. As the 1960s wore on, a new generation of ascendant black writers and artists like Amiri Baraka, John Williams, Ishmael Reed, Don L. Lee, Kristin Hunter, and Melvin Van Peebles cited Himes as a strong influence. With the United States seeming to sink beneath the weight of its egalitarian aspirations and apartheid realities, its ghettoes regularly engulfed in flame, America was finally ready to accept Chester Himes.

But the very political crises that made Himes’s work seem so relevant to readers in the 1960s had actually been portended two decades before, in his very first novel. Part of the thrill of reading If He Hollers Let Him Go is the way it deploys conventions we now recognize as noir for political purposes. A sense of conspiracy pervades the novel: Everywhere Bob goes, strangers cast glances, fidget shiftily, and otherwise betray complicity. Under other circumstances, we might read these descriptions as evidence of the strangers’ involvement in some plot that the narrative will unravel. But in If He Hollers Let Him Go, the extent and nature of the conspiracy are completely known to us from the opening pages. The conspiracy is white supremacy, and the shifty strangers are evaluating their ability to enforce it without betraying their purpose.

The shipyard where Bob works presents a miniature version of the political order taking shape under the Roosevelt administration: It’s a union shop where employment discrimination is barred and workers are drawn from all corners of American society. Men and women work side by side, as do blacks and whites, Southerners and Midwesterners, Jews and Christians. Yet without recourse to an explicit social code, most members of the white work force act out roles that justify their discrimination while maintaining plausible deniability in regard to whether they are intentionally doing so.

In the end, Bob resists the urge to murder, but he is framed for a workplace assault. After he is accused, he is brought to a private meeting with a judge and the president of the shipyard corporation: Instead of being charged with a crime, he’s told, Bob will immediately be drafted. The executive says the apparent leniency is to prevent “racial tension among the employees” and the slowdown in production that could result. Bob sees it instead as proof of the flimsiness of the evidence against him, as well as a desire to uphold myths of white purity and black depravity.

But both the executive’s stated reasons and Bob’s assessment of their underlying logic can be true, and the novel’s brilliance consists of its exposure of exactly this dynamic: the repurposing of retrograde social arrangements for progressive ends. When new social scripts are inaugurated at the level of macrocosm—as progressive, colorblind liberalism was being inaugurated in wartime America—traditional scripts persist in microcosm, constricting the possibilities of social life. Himes’s novel suggests that this is the conspiracy of New Deal liberalism: to disavow explicit racism while accepting its premises—all in the service of economic output, militarism, and efficient management.

It’s no coincidence that Himes finally achieved widespread acclaim at the very moment that America’s postwar consensus shattered. The fault lines he had identified in If He Hollers Let Him Go—the acquiescence of labor, business, and government to Jim Crow, and the apartheid social order that this compromise spawned—had finally made themselves visible. The novel ends abruptly with a revelatory dramatization of this compromise, but its legacy of segregation, inequality, and violence of a uniquely American type remains with us today.