Friday, October 12, 2007

the last book I read

If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes.

Chester Himes had a long and distinguished career as a writer of hard-boiled detective novels set in and around Harlem, New York, including the source material for the 1991 film A Rage In Harlem, but he also wrote plenty of non-genre fiction, including this, his first and most famous novel, originally published in 1945.

So: Bob Jones is a bright, well-educated black man employed as a shipyard worker in Los Angeles during World War II. On the face of it he seems to have a lot going for him: a beautiful girlfriend, some money to spend, a cool car, and on top of that he's just been promoted to foreman at the shipyard, at the time an unusual position for a black man.

But over the course of the book (which is compressed into a period of just four days) the casual racism of Bob's white colleagues and superiors, the chicanery of those seeking to use the circumstances of the war for their own political ends, and Bob's own frustration, aggression, sexual incontinence and intolerance conspire to bring about his downfall. Firstly he gets demoted for cursing at a white woman who refused to take orders from him, then it becomes apparent that his promotion might have been politically motivated in the first place, and finally he gets involved with an altercation with the female worker who cost him his promotion which results in an accusation of rape.

Bob isn't an especially sympathetic or likeable character, but that's obviously intentional - there are a couple of lengthy conversations between Bob and his girlfriend Alice which illustrate the two sides of the argument: a polite request for more civil rights to be granted (Alice the well-integrated Negro) against grabbing society by the throat and shaking it until it gives you what you want (Bob the uppity nigger). Bob's (short-lived) promotion illustrates the problem: this was a time when some civil rights concessions had been made, but the expectation among the white majority was that the black community would be grateful for what they'd been given and shut up about it.

It's clearly semi-autobiographical, as many first novels are, and it's a bit clunky in places - Alice for one seems only to exist as a source of exposition on race relations - but it's pretty brutally compelling nevertheless. It struck me as quite similar in a lot of ways to Thomas Keneally's The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith, and also to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart; all three feature a character brought low not just by oppression and discrimination but by his own aggression and refusal to bend and compromise. The general air of feverish wartime racial paranoia in the USA is also reminiscent of David Guterson's Snow Falling On Cedars, though that focused specifically on the Japanese community.

A somewhat lengthy analysis of the novel and the wider issues of wartime racism is here, if you want it.

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