The savage voice that raged in Harlem

Chester Himes: a life by James Sallis (Payback Press, £18.99)
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The Independent Culture

Chester Himes is perhaps the most singular American novelist of the past century, whose insight and innovation are still only beginning to be recognised. In 1981, when he died, his work was entirely out of print in English - a sad end for a man who unflinchingly detailed the spiritual deformation that racism has wreaked on all Americans, black and white. But he is being rediscovered, with more books in print now than he ever saw.

Chester Himes is perhaps the most singular American novelist of the past century, whose insight and innovation are still only beginning to be recognised. In 1981, when he died, his work was entirely out of print in English - a sad end for a man who unflinchingly detailed the spiritual deformation that racism has wreaked on all Americans, black and white. But he is being rediscovered, with more books in print now than he ever saw.

First to be reissued were the Harlem detective novels that made him briefly famous in the Sixties. Then came the protest novels written in the Forties. Finally, the pivotal personal novels of the Fifties - such as The End of a Primitive and Cast the First Stone - were issued uncut. Now, we have a full-scale biography written, intriguingly, by another singular American novelist, James Sallis.

Himes is a fine subject. Unlike that of your average desk-bound hack, his life was enormously eventful. He was born in 1909 in Missouri, and by the time he moved to California in 1940 he had "been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as 31 years can bear... I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of the Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter."

Later, Himes acquired literary respect with his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, an account of sex and racism in wartime California. He then lost much of that respect with his controversial Lonely Crusade, a thoroughgoing depiction of racism that offended the left as much as the right.

Himes became a cultural refugee, moving to Paris, to London, back to America, to Paris again and finally to Spain. By that time, he was bitter. In Paris, with his career in tatters, he reluctantly agreed to write a thriller. The result, a ferocious picaresque cop novel called A Rage in Harlem, established him as a uniquely comic yet savage voice in crime fiction. Later books in his "Harlem Domestic" series included the scabrous satire Cotton Comes to Harlem, which, filmed in 1968, ushered in the whole "blaxploitation" phenomenon.

It is on his Harlem books that much of Himes's reputation rests. Remarkable though they are, there's a danger of overcompensating for the fact that, initially, they were all but ignored by critics. Sallis does not fall into that trap. One of the great virtues of this biography is to guide toward the earlier work the reader who may be familiar with only the crime novels.

The novel Sallis picks out as Himes's truly great work is The End of a Primitive, first issued in 1955 as a bowdlerised paperback. Its subject is the great American taboo: a sexual relationship between a black man and a white woman. Both nakedly autobiographical and a work of art, it's funny, bleak and shocking.

In the passages about that book, Sallis's strengths and weaknesses as a biographer are revealed. He is a wonderfully close reader who reveals the importance of this undervalued masterpiece. Yet he shows little interest in research anywhere other than the library. Himes tells us in his autobiography that The End of a Primitive was based on his relationship with a white woman, Vandi Haywood; she later killed herself. One can't help wishing that Sallis had made some effort to find a third-party account of that crucial relationship.

That said, this is an insightful companion to Himes's work. But Sallis still leaves space for a more conventional biography - one that leans less heavily on Himes's two volumes of somewhat unreliable autobiography.

Sallis's response to the work of Himes is not confined to this biography. Sallis's own detective novels feature a black New Orleans detective, Lew Griffin, who is arguably in some degree based on Himes - or, better, akin to Himes. Perhaps the Lew Griffin novels will prove the more enduring tribute from one fine novelist to another.

The reviewer's novel, 'Cardiff Dead', is published by Bloomsbury

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