Wednesday, 29 December 2010

If He Hollers Let Him Go
By Chester Himes
Pubs. Serpent Tail Books
Pbck £7.99
Pps 259

Himes was one of the leading black writers of his generation and this, his first novel, was first published in 1945. He is, though, most famous for his series of Harlem-based detective stories. Growing up during the first half of the twentieth century he experienced the unremitting hatred and discrimination of blacks in his native country. This novel takes place over several days in the life of a young, black shipyard worker in California whose anger, outrage and a determination to take revenge on those oppressing him bursts onto the page like molten lava. Bob Jones, the hero, is a skilled ‘leaderman’ on the docks, but is slowly destroyed by the daily humiliations, degradation and even violence meted out by the whites he encounters. The claustrophobic situation makes him respond with violence too, an expression of the hatred that eats away inside him. Today the book won’t have the same shock value that it no doubt had then, but Himes’ direct and vivid, everyday language lends it a raw validity, turning it onto a compulsive read. It has the quality of a Greek tragedy in which the terrible fate of the hero is a foregone conclusion. For a black man in 40s USA there were two choices: submit to slavery or fight it head on.

As a black male, Himes would never find true recognition for his writing in the USA, In the 1950s, he emigrated and settled in France permanently, a country he liked in part due to his popularity in literary circles. There, Himes' fitted easily into the expat community that included fellow black artists like the communist political cartoonist Ollie Harrington and writer Richard Wright, as well as James Baldwin. An interesting essay is appended in which Himes calls for a Communist world revolution.

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