Penzler Pick, May 2001:
In James Sallis's long-awaited biography of novelist Chester Himes, he reveals that his own crime fiction career was partly inspired by the older writer's example. Admiring Himes's work ever since he first encountered it, Sallis began to haunt used bookstores in order to turn up more of it and eventually dedicated one of his Lew Griffin titles to Himes, while making the author of Cotton Comes to Harlem
a character in another.
Researching and producing a life of a fellow author is homage of a vastly greater order. It is a full-time, obsessive commitment that seldom turns out as expected. First viewing Himes as a sui generis author of savagely slapstick ghetto crime comedies, Sallis came to regard his subject instead as "America's central black writer." "It is exceedingly strange to know so well a man one has never met," Sallis begins. Yet a fully rounded portrait of Chester Bomar Himes, the Missouri-born, middle-class rebel and prison veteran, much of whose life was spent as an angry black man in European self-exile, was not an easy one to paint, even for someone as sympathetic as this biographer.
Born in 1908, Himes was a 19-year-old college dropout when he began serving what would be seven years of a 20- to 25-year jail sentence for burglary. "I grew to manhood in the Ohio State Penitentiary," he would later write. While behind bars, he managed to sell two hard-boiled stories to Esquire. Bought by legendary editor Arnold Gingrich, these "authentic" tales of a real-life convict appeared in a magazine that featured such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In 1936, at the age of 26, Himes was paroled and from then on embarked on a writer's path, though there were many obstacles, real and perceived, awaiting him. Whether moving from a stint in the WPA Writers Project to a utopian community in Ohio, or from the fringes of the Hollywood labor force to the lesser ranks of the Communist party, Chester Himes came more and more to regard himself as "a man without a country."
Even at Yaddo, the famed New York state writers' colony where he had a fellowship in 1948 (and lived across the hall from Patricia Highsmith as she worked on her first novel, Strangers on a Train), he was dissatisfied. Soon joining such fellow African American expatriates as Richard Wright and James Baldwin in France, he began to establish a reputation in Europe that would eventually precede him home.
"It is exceedingly strange to know so little, finally, about a man with whom you have spent so much time," Sallis winds up admitting ruefully at the end of his introduction. Readers of Chester Himes: A Life will know much more than they did when they began this highly intelligent if idiosyncratically assembled volume. --Otto Penzler
From Publishers Weekly
Novelist and critic Sallis (Bluebottle; etc.) delivers a satisfying, thoughtful, long-overdue biography of Chester Himes (1909-1984), a singular American writer and fascinating figure. Sallis outlines the author's threefold marginalization--as a WWII-era literary realist, as a crime novelist and as an African-American writer, a colleague of Wright and Baldwin. With unflagging clarity, he embarks on simultaneous explorations of Himes's writing and his tumultuous personal life. Sallis details Himes's upbringing in a fragmented, middle-class family, his brief infatuation with crime and the inception of his writing career in an Ohio state prison, during which time his work appeared in Esquire. In the 1940s and '50s Himes found himself in a cycle of literary aspirations and disappointments, epitomized by Jack Warner's memorable dismissal: "I don't want no niggers on this lot." Sallis weaves such accounts in with his solid discussions of Himes's important early novels, tightly atmospheric works that failed to find an audience in the racially charged climate. During Himes's expatriation in Europe, financial difficulties drove him toward surreal detective fiction, which won him acclaim late in life, as his health declined. Sallis's astute, writerly riffs on American inequities and literary vagaries zero in on what haunted Himes even in exile. As an "outsider" writer who forged unsettling social panoramas through violent fiction, perhaps Himes's only equal is Jim Thompson, and, similarly, Sallis's pithy book has the import of Robert Polito's biography of that better-known master of American crime. B&w photos. (Feb. 22)Forecast: Booksellers may note the appeal of this title to readers of mystery, literary history and African-American studies, and score a trifecta.
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