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A Rage in Harlem Paperback – December 17, 1989
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“One of the most important American writers of the 20th century. . . . A quirky American genius.”
“Himes wrote spectacularly successful entertainments, filled with gems of descriptive writing, plots that barely sidestep chaos, characters surreal, grotesque, comic, hip, Harlem recollected as a place that can make you laugh, cry, shudder.”
—John Edgar Wideman
“Himes’s Harlem saga vies with the novels of David Goodis and Jim Thompson as the inescapable achievement of postwar American crime fiction.”
—The New York Times
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Top Customer Reviews
Working stiff Jackson may be the squarest square in Harlem. He's gullible, fearful, a bit superstitious and dense, but not stupid--he's Everyman as a member of the black workingclass. He also has one overriding passion: his woman, Imabelle, a down-home high yellow knockout with a shadowy background.
Plucked clean of his savings by black grifters running an old con game, deep in trouble with his boss and his landlady, Jackson's more worried that Imabelle's somehow in peril. He enlists his estranged street-wise scam artist twin, Goldy, to help find and rescue her. Meanwhile, hard-rock Harlem police detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, themselves death on con artists, are also hunting the gang, wanted for murder in Mississippi. They use Goldy and Jackson to corner the gangsters in their hideout when one throws acid in Coffin Ed's face, triggering a whirlwind of bloodletting and madcap pursuit. The action is fast and furious, building to a spine-tingling climax and wry, incredulous close.
Black crime fiction didn't begin with Chester Himes, but nobody has done it better. He gives you more than your money's worth: snappy pacing, rapid-fire action. His short, staccato paragraphs are like cinematic quick cuts, accenting details of character, scene, mood. The range of detail--how people look, what they wear, eat, think; where they come from; particulars of location--is meticulous. You SEE and SENSE this world, this Harlem perhaps removed in time (but not in essence) from today, clearly. One thing I definitely like and respect is that his characters SOUND like real people; his black characters, particularly, sound like black folks I've known all my life.
This points up Himes' (who considered himself a serious artist and social critic) point of view--to try to be accurate and fair. To try, even within the constraints of a genre he scorned--pulp fiction--to turn the ugliness and suffering, the "absurdity" (as he himself put it) of life in a Northern black ghetto into a work of certain beauty and truth.
Well, beauty, or aesthetic, may seem too large a notion for a paperback detective novel, but Himes' sheer craft pulls it off. The book is well-written, richly character-driven, suspenseful. It's alternately side-splitting funny and bone-chillingly gruesome, a thriller you'll probably finish in one sitting. When you do, you'll probably want more. Fortunately, there is.
This book has great characters and vivid prose. I highly recommend it.
The novel is set in 1950s NYC -- read "real cool." There are some pretty interesting asides about what it was like to be black back the. However, this is not a preaching book. Himes just provides context.
Himes is at his best in descriptions. Colors leap out of the text. Walks -- always with a wiggle or gait -- stride through the book. Keep an eye out for a wonderful passage that uses the arrival of a train to describe the conditions of Harlem.
The plot may be a bit unlikely, as some reviewers pointed out, but Jackson's naivety is also uncommon. Again, the balance between this uncommon quality and the incredible string of events happening in such short time, turns the plot into something surreal, and that's why it worked for me. After all, isn't Mr Clay, Jackson's employer, who talks to him turning his back, napping on the couch - clearly a surreal character?
Grave Digger and Coffin Ed do shine from the first moment they appear on the page. I wouldn't be able to say what they have that all the other characters don't (and you'll find a number of noticeable characters in here), but they do have that `something'. Many of the characters have a strong personality, still Coffin Ed and especially Grave Digger - who appears longer in the story - have something more. Maybe it's that mix of recklessness and morality that it's hard to find with this depth and this complexity. I understand why Himes then shifted his attention to them.
The plot is enjoyable on the whole, but there are episodes that really grab a reader. What to say of Coffin Ed unwittingly knocking out Grave Digger while being blinded by acid, desperately calling for him, fearing he's being killed? Or Billie offering money to Grave Digger if he leaves Coffin Ed's attackers alone, so not to ruin her business... which Grave Digger never takes as an option?
But my absolute favourit is the episode of the approaching train, a long, emotional episode: the train approaches the station and shakes everything on its way, tracks, houses, the very air, all the characters. It also shakes the story in a way that I hadn't expected. Powerful.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A fast, great read....
Compelling story, but rife with violence.Read more