Ben Winch's Reviews > Cotton Comes To Harlem

Cotton Comes To Harlem by Chester Himes
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Mar 20, 13

bookshelves: american, pulp, anglo, 5-stars

Chester Himes is the bomb, he's the shit, he's a genius. You're into crime and you ain't read him, you're missing out. You're into the African-American experience and you ain't read him, you're really missing out. You think some lowly thriller-writer's beneath you? Chester Himes can write. The style is half the fun: baroque hip gritty black humour ramped up to eleven in the service of thrills and satire. Check this:
With a flourish like a stripteaser removing her G-string, she took off one shoe and tossed it into his lap. He knocked it violently aside. She took off the other shoe and tossed it into his lap. He caught himself just in time to keep from grabbing it and biting it. She stripped off her stockings and garter belt and approached him to drape them about his neck.

He came to his feet like a Jack-in-the-box, saying in a squeaky voice, 'This has gone far enough.'

'No, it hasn't,' she said and moved into him.

He tried to push her away but she clung to him with all her strength, pushing her stomach into him and wrapping her legs about his body. The odor of hot-bodied woman, wet cunt and perfume came up from her and drowned him.

'Goddamn whore!' he grated, and backed her to the bed. He tore off his coat, mouthing, 'I'll show you who's a pansy, you hot-ass slut.'

But at the last moment he regained enough composure to go hang his holstered pistol on the outside doorknob out of her reach, then he turned back towards her.

'Come and get it, pansy,' she taunted, lying on the bed with her legs open and her brown-nippled teats pointing at him like the vision of the great whore who lives in the minds of all puritanical men.

First Himes I ever read, The Heat's On, opened with the best action sequence I've seen in print ever - made me realise action is a glorious thing. In All Shot Up a motorcycle rider is decapitated by a pane of glass off a glass repairer's truck and keeps riding, while Grave Digger and Coffin Ed (the anti-heroic detectives who feature throughout Himes's Harlem crime novels) watch through the frosted-over windscreen of Ed's jalopy.

Thing is, Himes can do 'literary'. His first novel, Cast the First Stone, clearly part-autobiographical, is an acute analysis of homosexuality in prison (or bisexuality, since most of the characters were straight when they were free), with desperation, confusion and pride-versus-shame centre-stage. For 1950s America, coming from a black man, it must have been shocking, but (unlike Burroughs, say) it's not played for shock value. It's touching, it's true, it draws you in. But it didn't sell, and after 4 or 5 such professional misfires Himes moved to Paris, where he was convinced by translator and Serie Noir publisher Marcel Duhamel to try his hand at the crime novels which ultimately made him famous.

Harlem through the eyes of a Parisian emigre encouraged to write the black humour that always goes over better in France than the States. This is one-of-a-kind cult noir par excellence, the type of writer who obsesses you, fully the equal of Hammett or Chandler or Jim Thompson or David Goodis. Yeah (like Chandler's) the plots can be stupid, but try Cotton Comes to Harlem for the tightest of them, and for a healthy dose of race relations Chester Himes-style. Himes, man! If I haven't reviewed him until now it's cos I didn't know where to start. But, pulp writer though he may be, he's one for the canon.

Other classics: A Rage in Harlem, The Real Cool Killers, Blind Man With a Pistol.

Oh yeah, and most of the Harlem novels were re-released by Penguin in 2012.
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Just read (and taught) a wild short story by him and it made me curious to read more. Thanks for this review! I hadn't known much about him nor read him and want to rectify this now--


message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Wow, a short story! I haven't seen any of them. Was it hard to get hold of. What's it called?


message 3: by Jessica (last edited Feb 23, 2013 08:23PM) (new)

Jessica It's called "Prediction." I can't say I loved it, I didn't. But it's memorable and it made me curious about Himes, so I did some reading...
It's in an anthology I'm using for the first time in a Creative Writing class. I haven't been crazy about the anthology, but some choices are excellent and the editor includes some authors--like Himes--which are not at all typical and which I applaud.


message 4: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch OK thanks. Thought there might be a collection of his stories in existence. Will take a look. Good luck with his novels! Of the non-crime books I've only read Cast the First Stone, which was very good, but I think the crime novels are better.


message 5: by Noran (new)

Noran Miss Pumkin Is this related to the film?


message 6: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Yeah there's a film adaptation from a while back. I haven't seen it though.


message 7: by Noran (new)

Noran Miss Pumkin Do not bother-I saw it as a teen-it is nothing like the book you reviewed.


message 8: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Yeah I heard it wasn't much good.


message 9: by Jessica (new)

Jessica btw Ben, a student told me that his story, "Prediction," was published posthumously. It was not something he tried to publish himself. One can understand this, reading it, it's full of rage, a scenario of black against white revenge.


message 10: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Sounds interesting. He had a lot of rage, but I sense you may be pleasantly surprised with how he channeled it in his crime novels. He's funny! I have to presume getting out of the states was good for him.


message 11: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Yes, as I said, I didn't really like the story, but I was impressed nonetheless. And he, like James Baldwin and Richard Wright, found a more egalitarian society in Paris (later Paris would show the same sort of racism they fled toward its Algerian immigrants).
I look forward to getting to know him and his work better. Thanks!


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