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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

CHESTER HIMES A Life; By James Sallis; Walker & Co.: 336 pp., $28

March 18, 2001|MICHAEL TOLKIN | Michael Tolkin, a novelist and screenwriter, has just completed his third novel. He is the author of, among other works, "The Player."

How wonderful to be brilliant without genius, like Broadway. How wonderful to have a generous audience and to know the audience so well, those strangers who love to be worked over. And what a dull and dreadful thing to be a genius without an audience, to begin in boldness and end in disappointment, resentment annulled if at all by hope for posterity, like Melville, who left "Billy Budd" in a trunk. A fair question: What if "Moby-Dick" had sold well, what if the critics hadn't said, essentially, Oh, no, Herman, not another book about the sea?

Chester Himes wrote 23 books, novels and autobiography, starting with "If He Hollers Let Him Go," one of the great novels of Los Angeles, and ending with a series of detective novels about Harlem, which brought him a little fame, a little money and some peace.

What if Himes, a genius, had been loved and paid well from the start? He would have become something like Norman Mailer, a scandalous novelist and social critic, building an audience, working unevenly, but always with the confidence that someone was listening, and writing books that mattered in their time, for their time. A man who deserved to be happier would have been happier. One can play with paradox and say that what he should be remembered for is precisely the work that he produced as a result of the history that deformed him, but this is cruel.

James Sallis' new biography, "Chester Himes: A Life," deserves three reviews, one for its story of an American life, a story about race that, as Himes would have it, is also about life and family, without race; one for Sallis' fair analysis of Himes' work, setting a context for his triumphs and his misses; and then the last review, to praise without reserve a book every young writer should be given before starting out, as a warning. As a book about the difficulty of writing, which is about a man who wrote because in no other sphere was he free, this biography is at its strongest. Sallis is painfully attuned to Himes as a patron saint of the life of writing not in step with his time, who may be world-historical but who also might not, because of history's crushing weight. That Himes finally achieved some fame with a series of detective novels is not what he wanted.

He began in the same environment as National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice but 60 years earlier, among the early bourgeoisie around Negro colleges in the South. His father, Joseph Sandy Himes, taught metal trades and made jewelry. His mother, Estelle Bomar, saw in his father a future college dean, but they came of age as the Jim Crow laws tightened, and Joseph Sandy lacked ambition. He was dark with blue eyes; she was an octoroon, one-eighth Negro, therefore legally black. She was well-educated for her time and a pianist. They moved around the South, until the defining tragedy of Chester's childhood, a school chemistry experiment in which Chester's brother was blinded. Chester was unfairly blamed.

The family moved north for medical care, and his parents were reduced to sponging off relatives. Working in a hotel, Chester fell down an elevator shaft and, with a pitiful settlement, but state disability money, Chester went to Ohio State, where he wandered from school into crime. After disappointing everyone who believed in him, he was sent to prison in 1928, at age 19, for 25 years. He was a reader, and then he got a typewriter and he was writer. He sold fiction from prison. He sold a story to Esquire, "Crazy In Stir" under his prison number, 59623.

In his seventh year in prison a fire killed 300 inmates, which brought attention to conditions, and Chester was paroled. He continued to write short stories and essays. He got married. He moved to California. He was a published magazine writer, and Hollywood was where published magazine writers, made good money. He wrote story analyses for Warner Brothers and might have been hired as a writer, but Jack Warner said, "I don't want any niggers on my lot." For a time he was the butler to Louis Bromfield, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and one of the literary stars of his day.

Himes looked for civilian defense plant work. "It wasn't being refused employment in the plants so much.... It was the look on the people's faces when you asked them about a job.... As if some friendly dog had come in through the door and said, 'I can talk.' It shook me .... Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually, and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear.... I had served seven and a half years in prison ... and still I was entire, complete, functional ... and I was not bitter.... I was thirty-one when I went to Los Angeles and thirty-five and shattered when I left to go to New York. I had become afraid."

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