Review of The Collected Stories Of Chester Himes
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/27/07
In reading The Collected Stories Of Chester Himes I was reminded of another short story writer who made his name in the 1930s and 1940s as a social realist writer, and then made his mark writing pulpy novels toward the end of his career. That writer was Irwin Shaw, and while he was a superior short story teller to Himes, Himes is still a good writer, whose shorter fiction deserves a wider audience. The thing that keeps Himes from the heights Shaw reached is that his tales are not as diverse in theme nor character development. The two main tropes in this book of sixty tales are war stories and prison tales. While the latter trope is one that is still almost terra incognita for most writers, the former is very well represented in fiction. The prison tales, as a whole, suffer a bit from Himes’ own formula. While no one else was writing such tales, there was not much variance within the tales. They often go on a bit too long for their one or two points to ring clarion with the reader, and then there will be some violence. The best of the tales mix in humor with these tropes, and the results can be excellent. The war tales, too, are a bit formulaic, although they are not an internal recipe of Himes’, merely his toeing the genre line. Himes simply repeats himself too often, and this lack of breadth limits his ability to delve as deeply into the subject matter as needed. Another general problem with all the stories is that, unlike Shaw, Himes is not particularly good at ending his stories well nor memorably. Tales should always have something that grabs a reader, holds a reader, then leaves a reader wanting more, or thinking about what they just read. Too few of Himes’ stories do that, as most just peter out, with an indifferent shrug as a reaction.
While best known for his later detective novels- most set in Harlem, such as Cotton Comes To Harlem, featuring his two most well known fictive creations- New York police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, Himes is rarely studied. Only Charles L. P. Silet’s The Critical Response To Chester Himes engages the writer in print, while the amount of online critical analysis of his work is very scarce; my wife’s brief review of this book a lone exception. That for his short fiction is virtually nonexistent. In this way, he reminds me a bit of a fellow black American, the poet James A. Emanuel, whose poetry has been even more critically neglected than Himes’ short fiction. The reason for both writers’ lack of critical acclaim likely has to do that both were expatriates from America, living out the ends of their lives abroad; both men in France. While Emanuel is still alive, as of this writing, Himes died in 1984.
He was born in 1909, in Missouri, to a family of middle class Academics, and spent much of his childhood in urban Cleveland, Ohio. After a crime-filled youth, and being expelled from college, which led to an eight year prison stay for armed robbery, he found his talent for words, and wrote while working a series of menial jobs. After some minor publishing success, in newspapers, small detective magazines, and even a big magazine like Esquire, which published his stories Crazy In The Stir and To What Red Hell, Himes published a series of socially conscious ‘race novels’- such as Black Sheep, If He Hollers Let Him Go, Lonely Crusade, and The Third Generation, which were neglected and did poorly in terms of sales. He left America for good in 1953, and found some recognition and prosperity in France, from the French critics, for his detective novels, which won him the 1958 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, and later moved to Spain, where he died. In France, he was an acquaintance of the more well known and prosperous writers, Richard Wright and James Baldwin- both black émigrés from America.
The earliest story in the book dates from 1933 and the last from 1979. so nearly half a century of Himes’ short fiction is represented, but, after the initial burst of early tales, Himes sort of fell into a predictable pattern of short story writing. Also, there was little growth evident in the later tales; not artistically, personally, socially, nor in any fashion that suggests that Himes was captivated by writing for writing’s sake. This is a trap that many writers- including Shaw, fell into, especially after success in another area. Himes’ detective stories and novels became so popular that he lost that coveted ‘edge’ that truly great writers rarely seem to give up. That said, the tales range from bad stories to good stories to some mediocre stories. One simply wishes the man had pushed himself a bit more, even if the reasons for his ‘selling out,’ and writing genre fiction are understandable.
The book’s first story, if not Himes’ first- although likely, since it seems to have many of the failings of a young writer- mainly excess narrative that adds nothing, and a lack of focus, is Headwaiter, which details the unfair firing of a black hotel employee. It does end well, though, for it focuses not on the fired employee, but the boss who fired the waiter, and how he shakes free the unpleasantness of the firing. This is the sort of approach that augurs well for a young writer. Here is the end:
Then he shook it all from his mind. It required a special effort. He blinked his eyes clear of the picture of a dejected black face, donned his creased, careful smile and pushed through the service hall into the dining room. His head was cocked to one side as though he were deferentially listening.
Even from this, one can see that Himes’ prose in unadorned, and not pseudo-poetic. The poesy of the end image comes from its naked description in contrast to what might be expected. There are no excess modifiers nor grandiloquent descriptions. That this style was more in line with mystery writers like a Dashiell Hammett or Mickey Spillane than more literary minded fictionists might be seen as a bit of the foot eventually finding the right shoe. However, there is something vaguely Hemingwayvian in Himes’ writings. No, he did not clip his phrasing to the degree Hemingway did, nor did he craft poesy from the arrangement of such clipped phrases, but there was potential there, and one wonders if Himes’ non-detective novels, and even some of his nonfiction, ever ran with that tendency, and allowed it to flower?
In a story like Lunching At The Ritzmore (a nice combination and parody of two of the premier hotel chains’ names), a black man tries to convince a white college student from the sticks that 1940s era Los Angeles restaurants are bigoted and will not serve lunch to blacks. The college boy takes him up on his bet, and as the men walk about downtown LA, in search of a restaurant, they attract a crowd- including a befuddled white cop who cannot legally do a thing to law abiding bettors. The very strangeness of the crowd, and the black man’s request to be served lunch at the fancy hotel, where he knew blacks were never served, leads to his, the college boy’s, and the whole crowd’s being served apple pie, for the management of the hotel feels that the size of the crowd, and the presence of the policeman, means that all are served their orders of apple pie, the only menu item they can read. Thus, the white college boy wins the bet, believes that he is right that no discrimination against blacks exists in the city, but has to pay off the bet because neither the black nor the others who bet him had any money. This is a nice, subversive tack to use to demonstrate how bigotry really works- more often through the naïve-te and ignorance of those who deny it, rather than those who employ it, while also leavening the brief five and a half page tale with humor. That the tale succeeds, while falling outside the two main tropes Himes employs, suggests that, while talented, Himes had a too strong conformist streak that worked to the detriment of too many of his tales.
Another excellent tale, that defies his own conformity, is A Penny For Your Thoughts- a lame sounding title that becomes a great title due to the subversive way it contrasts with the tale it tells. It is set in the post-Civil War Old West, where a bunch of rural Texans are aiming to ‘lynch a nigger’ for, of course, raping a white woman. But, the story is not nearly as predictable as that setup implies. Instead of making the black character the protagonist, the protagonist is a White retired Texas Ranger who actually stands up for the accused black character- but not out of a real sense of justice, but because the accused is a member of the U.S. Army. After beating back the lynch mob single-handedly, as they storm the local jail, and killing some of the would be vigilantes, the hero gives his reasons to the crowd:
In the raw silence following the echo [of a shot that killed a vigilante], Cap Coty in his slow, courteous drawl said: ‘Y’all understand. I don’t give a damn ‘bout the nigger; it’s the uniform I revere. Now goddammit y’all go on home.’
He stood there, a big straight man in a big black hat until they had all gone from his sight, thinking.
That last word, which ends the tale, is another example of why Himes was a writer superior to most, for it contrasts straightforward one dimensional action, which this short tale is composed mainly of, with the acknowledgement that actions have consequences, and that the characters might ruminate on them.
The tale Two Soldiers is about a GI who carries a wounded soldier from battle, but Himes subverts this cliché by having the wounded soldier be black and dying, and the soldier carrying him be a white Georgia racist who is haunted by this fact. So Softly Smiling may be the best tale in the whole book, and is apropos to today, in that it follows a black GI on thirty day leave, who meets and marries a girl on whim, and the tale counts down the days till he goes back to war, uncertain if he or the marriage will survive. It is wonderfully conceived, wrought, and executed- and not some phony tearjerking tale. Others, like Heaven Has Changed, are too obvious in their political symbolism. The same sort of obviousness drags down Dirty Deceivers, about two blacks who marry, passing for white, feign racism, then discover they are both black, and divorce, because they lied to each other. A good setup, but the too pat and manifestly satiric end ruins what could have been a deep psychological exploration of race and turns it into a mere plot device. A similar letdown occurs in The Ghost Of Rufus Jones, wherein Saint Peter lets a dead black man go back to earth, where whites will see him as white and blacks as black. This causes much confusion, and good satire, but ends with some disappointing racism from Saint Peter, which is both obvious, and makes the tale end too patly. All He Needs Is Feet is similarly too predictable, as a black man stands up for himself, gets his feet cut off by a lynch mob, then later is slapped by a white man, for lack of patriotism. when he cannot rise for the National Anthem at a screening of the film Bataan. This tale, at under two pages, at least has brevity to leaven its heavyhandedness, something other flat Himes tales do not possess.
Money Don’t Spend In The Stir is another excellent tale, laced with comedy, about a convict who inherits money and tries to bribe his way out of jail, even going so far as to try to bribe President Roosevelt for a pardon, yet he gets only worse and worse for it all. There Ain’t No Justice is also humorous, as a paroled prisoner tries to break back into jail to hide evidence that he was planning a jailbreak. He is caught breaking back into the jail, and convicted of a jailbreak, for the law does not differentiate from breaking out nor in. Himes is at his best when he subverts the expectations his tales engender, such as the epistolary tale, Let Me At The Enemy- An’ George Brown. Humor is his best weapon, but not the only one. In The Meanest Cop In The World a prisoner’s revery is interrupted by a cop he conjures from his subconscious. To that point, however, we have no idea that the tale is all in someone’s mind, and the prisoner ends up cursing the cop, or that part of himself- an ingenious pre-Twilight Zone sort of ending.
But, perhaps the most engaging, if not best, tale in the book is One Night In New Jersey, which has brevity on its side- being only a page and a half long, and which switches narrative gears midway through. It starts off with a black man driving his car and coming across a dead, white female body in the snow, off the side of the road, and ends with the driver’s ruminations of his knowledge of some gossip on the dead girl’s family. It’s a technique that should have been expanded, but hints at what Himes might have done had he stuck with the short story format and brought it to a higher level.
Of course, to read the few online reviews and blurbs available, one would think that Himes, like virtually every other writer, was preternaturally gifted. The blurbs, however, are uniformly generic, such as The Guardian’s ‘A ruthless honesty which cannot fail to impress.’ Ok, perhaps honesty can impress on a personal level, but it’s meaningless in art- which is based upon deception. And to couch the so-called virtue so tritely, with the word ‘ruthless’? Jeez. The Financial Times has an even longer blurb, but one that is so off the rack that one wonders what a financial newspaper is even doing reviewing fiction. It states: ‘There is no typical Himes story.…in the short story, Himes ranks alongside Hemingway for style and Eudora Welty for insight.…He has James Baldwin’s shrewd racial insight, Zora Neale Hurston’s humanity and Raymond Chandler’s narrative pace and verve.’ Well, as I’ve shown, there are typical Himes tales, and the rest is just puffery- with spurious comparisons to writers Himes is clearly superior to, such as Chandler, Hurston, and Welty.
Yet, depressingly, even the aforementioned Baldwin, perhaps the greatest Twentieth Century black writer, worldwide, fell into the trap of concocting noxious blurbs. Of Himes, he states, ‘Mr. Himes undertakes to consider the ever-present subconscious terror of the black man.....the psychology of the oppressed and the oppressor and their relationship to each other.’ Well, so did Baldwin, Wright, Ralph Ellison, and virtually every other black writer of note. Should Himes actually be commended for using words when he wrote, too?
No critics seem to mention that Himes is a great example of damning the old MFA workshop injunction against ‘telling’ a story, rather than ‘showing’ it. In a simpleminded way, this is just shorthand for trying to genericize writing and reduce it all to mere description, rather than firmly grasping the narrative and telling in a lucid, compelling, and poetic style. Of course, ‘showing,’ when it entails good poesy, metaphor, and imagery, can work, as well, but the very notion that stating, say, that the cologne a male character wears has an erotic effect on women is less effective than letting it be known the character dapples cologne on and then taking two pages to describe how several women proposition him, is silly; especially if the effect the cologne has is not the main point of the tale. Something that just sets a scene need not usually be rhapsodized over unless it is important to the narrative, develops a character’s traits, or somehow makes a contribution, aside from mere description to describe. Description itself is not arresting- it’s the how and why, within a tale, that determines its success.
Himes understood this, and fortunately, the majority of his stories take that approach, even if most of them do not fully succeed. The Collected Stories Of Chester Himes may not be, to use blurbspeak, an ‘essential part of any literature lover’s library,’ but it can’t hurt one’s collection. His stories are enjoyable, quick-paced, and usually not too didactic. That they also illumine a forgotten part of American history- both really and fictively, as do Irwin Shaw’s, is but a bonus. In an era where so few artists and works of art even come close to fulfilling their claims, that should put Chester Himes on the ‘to read’ lists of anyone whose interest in him has extended to this period.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]
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