Chester Himes BOOK review [James Sallis]

Book Reviews
Chester Himes BOOK review [James Sallis]
Nov 1, 2001, 21:04


CHESTER HIMES: A LIFE by James Sallis; Walker Publishing, 2001

While I usually try to avoid reading biographies the way I avoid paying traffic tickets, the combination of James Sallis's verbal wizardry with a subject like the life of Chester Himes, arguably America's best crime writer, was pretty much irresistible. I'm happy to report that this book is about as sublime as a biography can be. Starting with the subject, Himes's life is as interesting as most of his novels. Sallis traces Himes's career from his early childhood through his first publications—stories written for Esquire while Himes was serving a seven-year prison stint for armed robbery (the stories were published under the byline 59623, Himes's prison number)—through his ex-patriot years when the author found some relative success in Europe and continued anonymity in America. Sallis covers the events of the writer's life with keen insight and cool literary analysis. While Himes is perhaps best known for his Harlem cycle (including the classic Real Cool Killers), Sallis seems most interested in the unknown Himes. Sallis weaves his narrative through the Depression years, when Himes worked for, among other odd jobs, the WPA and the Ohio Writer's Project, and traces his life through his later works, including the deeply disturbing The Primitive and his autobiography, Yesterday Will Make You Cry.

While Himes's life is a great story on its own, what makes this book a true treat is the ability of James Sallis—an accomplished novelist in his own right—to tell that story. Sallis observes in his introduction, largely a brilliant meditation on what it means to write a biography, that “Biography at once can be, perhaps must be, an act of admiration and betrayal. Certainly in some regard it violates its subject, distorting and simplifying, forcing complex events, thought, and actions into superficial patterns, seeking to sweep up thousands of shimmering, mobile, living moments into its nets.” This is undoubtedly true, but Sallis's consciousness of this simple fact is what makes his book so complex and rich. He always avoids the easy path when talking about Himes and, while most biographies turn their subjects into academic discourses, what Sallis achieves is a living portrait. Take this description of the ways Himes's early life shaped his psyche. “Already Himes had survived his parents' contempt and acrimony for one another, his father's slow slide into failure's home plate, his mother's crippling blend of pride and self-hatred, the childhood blinding of brother Joe for which he felt responsible, subterranean life among Cleveland's gamblers, hustlers, and high rollers, and, finally, a forty-foot plunge down an elevator shaft that crushed vertebrae, shattered bones, and, though he recovered, left him in a Procrustean brace for years and in pain for the rest of his life.” Damn!

-Jason Cons

Filed Under: Book ReviewsBooks

RSSComments (0)

Trackback URL

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.