Tag Archives: noir

Chester Himes Writes Harlem (and Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones)

Grave Digger took off his hat and rubbed his short kinky hair.
‘This is Harlem,’ he said. ‘Ain’t another place like it in the world. You’ve got to start from scratch here, because these folks in Harlem do things for reasons nobody else in the world would think of. Listen, there were two hard working colored jokers, both with families, got to fighting in a bar over on Fifth Avenue near a hundred-eighteenth Street and cut each other to death about whether Paris was in France or France was in Paris.’

That ain’t nothing,’ Brody laughed. ‘Two Irishmen over in Hell’s kitchen got to arguing and shot each other to death over whether the Irish were descended form the gods or the gods descended from the Irish.’ (52)

I love Chester Himes, take such deep delight in these books for many many reasons. Probably the least of these is how Himes describes Harlem, gives addresses and intersections, signals the character and quality of people by the side of the street they live on, illuminates interiors in all their shocking colour… But I confess, that aspect of his books are pretty fucking cool. There he was in France writing these, a love and hate thing going on for his place, his people. A complex understanding of race and politics form the context, humour the only way for survival, and every now and then a hope for redemption.

It means today I can imagine some of these surroundings in all of their technicolor glory:

Her gaze touched fleetingly on his tight-drawn face and ran off to look for something more serene.

But there wasn’t anything serene in that violently colored room. The overstuffed pea green furniture garnished with pieces of blond wood fought it out with the bright red carpet, but the eyes that had to look at it were the losers.

It was a big front room with two windows on Edgecombe Drive and one window on 159th Street.

She sat on a yellow leather ottoman on the red carpet, facing the blond television-radio-record set that was placed in front of the closed-off fireplace beneath the mantelpiece. (80)

Who would’ve guessed that those rows of forbidding houses down St Nicholas Ave once held such settings? Another one:

They parked in front of the bar at 146th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

Chink had a room with a window in the fourth-floor apartment on St Nicholas Avenue. He had chosen the black and yellow decor himself and had furnished it in modernistic style. the carpet was black, the chairs yellow, the day bed had a yellow spread, the combination television-record player was black trimmed with yellow on the inside, the curtains were black and yellow striped, and the dressing table and chest of drawers were black.

The record player was stacked with swing classics, and Cootie Williams was doing a trumpet solo in Duke Ellington’s Take the Train. (94)

I am fascinated too, by the way over and again Harlem is emphasized as a place of country folk somehow stuck in the big city, and transforming it to wring what they need from it, be it soul food or be it codes of conduct.

‘Listen boy,’ Coffin Ed said. ‘Brody is a homicide man and solving murders is his business. He goes at it in a routine way like the law prescribes, and if some more people get killed while he’s going about it, that’s just too bad for the victims. But me and Digger are two country Harlem dicks who live in this village and don’t like to see anybody get killed. It might be a friend of ours. So we’re trying to head off another killing.’ (113)

These are from The Crazy Kill (1959). Another thing I love about these books — the covers.

Then there’s All Shot Up (1960):

The apartment was on the fifth and top floor of an old stone-fronted building on 110th street, overlooking the lagoon in upper Central Park.

Colored boys and girls in ski ensembles and ballet skirts were skating the light fantastic at two o’clock…

‘Reminds me of Gorki,’ Grave Digger lisped.

‘The writer or the pawnbroker?’ Coffin Ed asked.

A story about a boy falling through the ice and the villagers search and do not find him and so the question has to be asked, was there ever a boy?

They went silently up the old marble steps and pushed open the old, exquisitely carved wooden doors with cutglass panels.

‘The rich used to live here,’ Coffin Ed remarked.

‘Still do,’ Grave Digger said. ‘Just changed color. Colored rich folks always live in the places abandoned by white rich folks.’

They walked through a narrow, oak-paneled hallway with stained-glass wall lamps to an old rickety elevator. (260)

Reminds me of Gorki? Happiness in a single line. The description of wealth trickling down — and the depth to which it falls also makes my writing-about-race-and-class-and-buildings-and-cities heart go pitter pat. We saw these graceful, beautiful old buildings.

New York - Central Park

More covers…there’s a whole book to be written about covers, and what they say about what publishers are selling.

From The Heat’s On (1961):

So we’re leaving Harlem, moving on to the Bronx briefly…and the abode of Sister Heavenly (this whole set-up, god damn, amazing):

Apartment buildings gave way to pastel-colored villas of southern Italian architecture, garnished with flower gardens and plaster saints. After a while the houses became scattered, interspersed by market gardens and vacant lots overgrown with weeds in which hoboes slept and goats were tethered.

Finally he reached his destination, a weather-stained, one-stories, pink stucco villa at the end of an unfinished street without sidewalks. It was a small house flanked by vacant lots used for rubbish dumps. Oddly enough, it had a large gabled attic. It sat far back of a wire fence enclosing a front yard of burnt grass, dried-up flowers and wildly thriving weeds. in a niche over the front door was a white marble crucifixion of a singularly lean and tortured Christ, encrusted with bird droppings. In other niches at intervals beneath the eaves were all the varicolored plaster sainsts good to the souls of Italian peasants.

All of the front windows were closed and shuttered. Save for the faint sounds of a heavy boogie beat on a piano, the house seemed abandoned. (351)

And we move on from housing and neighbourhoods and cities to music and grief — this from when Coffin Ed thinks Grave Digger has died:

It was a saxophone solo by Lester Young. He didn’t recognize the tune, but it had the ‘Pres’ treatment. His stomach tightened. It was like listening to someone laughing their way toward death. It was laughter dripping wet with tears. Colored people’s laughter. (468)

I’ll end with Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), the last of my Chester Himes reading jag in the run up to actually going to Harlem. I like how it opens with some philosophy:

…all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.

Again we get down to the spatialities of class position:

Where 125th Street crosses Seventh Avenue is the Mecca of Harlem. To get established there, an ordinary Harlem citizen has reached the promised land, if it merely means standing on the sidewalk.

Himes writes a thick description of streets and bridges, patterns of usage, establishing how this corner means different things, socially and economically and spiritually, to Blacks and to whites. He continues:

Therefore many white people riding the buses or in motor cars pass this corner daily. Furthermore, most of the commercial enterprises–stores, bars, restaurants, theaters, etc.–and real estate are owned by white people.

But it is the Mecca of the black people just the same. The air and the heat and the voices and the laughter, the atmosphere and the drama and the melodrama, are theirs. Theirs are the hopes, the schemes, the prayers and the protest. they are the managers, the clerks, the cleaners, they drive the taxis and buses, they are the clients, the customers, the audience; they work it, but the white man owns it… The black people have the past and the present, and they hope to have the future.

What better explanation of the vast separation between use value and exchange value could you possibly ask for, or the contradictions of capitalism structured by race?

Now this, on tthe car belonging to Coffin Ed and  and Grave Digger Jones, just made me laugh.

…at night it was barely distinguishable from any number of other dented, dilapidated struggle buggies cherished by the citizens of Harlem…

Struggle buggies. I’m going to try and remember that.

More on space and race and class, and how these things confront each other from one side of the street to the other:

Across Lenox Avenue, on the West Side, toward Seventh Avenue, were the original slums with their rat-ridden, cold water flats unchanged, the dirty glass0fronted ground floors occupied by the customary supermarkets with hand -lettered ads on their plate-glass windows reading: “Fully cooked U.S. Govt. Inspected SMOKED HAMS 55c lb…Secret Deodorant ICE-BLUE 79c …

Notion stores with needles and buttons and thread on display…Barbershops…Smokeshops…Billboards..Black citizens sitting on the stops to their cold-water flats in the broiling night….Sports ganged in front of bars sucking marijuana…Grit and dust and dirt and litter floating idly in the hot dense air stirred up by the passing of feet. That was the side of the slum dwellers. the ritzy residents across the street never looked their way.

All of this…how is this not a kind of love song to Harlem? Despite the realities of this:

“Why would anyone live here who was honest?” Grave Digger said. “Or how could anyone honest stay honest who lived here? What do you want? This place was built for vice, for whores to hustle in and thieves to hid out in. And somebody got a building permit, because it’s been built after the ghetto got here.”

This building is owned by Acme Realty — they own a lot of buildings in Harlem, superintendent doesn’t know much else, only they’re all white. There’s more about slum removal:

The New York City government had ordered the demolition of condemned slum buildings on the block of the north side of 125th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, and the residents didn’t have anywhere to go.

Residents from other sections of Harlem were mad because these displaced people would be dumped on them, and their neighborhoods would become slums.

…they were absorbed by the urgency of having to find immediate housing, and they bitterly resented being evicted form the homes where some had been born, and their children had been born, and some had married and friends and relatives had died, no matter if these homes were slum flats that had been condemned as unfit for human dwelling. They had been forced to live there, in all the filth and degradation, until their lives had been warped to fit, and now they were being thrown out. It was enough to make a body riot.

One angry sister,who stood watching from the opposite sidewalk, protested loudly, “They calls this Urban Renewal, I calls it poor folks removal.”

And to end not just with the lies of development and progress, but how those fit within the context of generations of lies. Grave Digger Jones sums up the frustrations of a generation:

And you and me were born just after our pappies had got through fighting a war to make the world safe for democracy. But he difference is that by the time we’d fought in a jim-crow army to whip the Nazis and had come home to our native racism, we didn’t believe any of that shit. We had grown up in the Depression and fought under hypocrites against hypocrites and we’d learned by then that whitey is a liar…

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Smith: LA’s African American Renaissance of the 1940s

RJ Smith The Great Black WayI enjoyed The Great Black Way, and LA really was amazing in the 1940s. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the awesomeness of the Harlem Renaissance was any less, so my only quibbles are with the taste of implied rivalry. One of the opening sentences of the book that sets the scene:

Walled off by segregation and custom, black L.A. built an infinitely rich world. Once upon a time, black L.A. was a stand-alone city within a city, and the more I understood that, the more artificial it seems to spear ate music from the rest of people’s lives. Once upon a time, everything was connected: the civil rights leader Clayton Russell was good friends with the R&B artists. He appears fictionalized in one of the early L.A. books of black novelist Chester Himes. On Central Avenue the jazz musicians were civil rights champions; the actors were tied to the gangsters; the gangsters court the crusading newspaper editor, who was allied with the Communist Party; the renegade communist was a member of the gay subculture… (x)

I loved how this connected a lot of the dots for me, because these artists, writers and activists are all people I love, but hadn’t really understood in their full context of place, friendships, connections. The interviews are pretty amazing, and beautifully full of a whole lot of knowledge and pride. I loved too that they understood the privilege they were bestowing on the author — he notes that a number of the people he interviewed gave him a caution in referencing Carl Van Vechten, white patron of the Harlem Renaissance who would end up writing a book called Nigger Heaven. That’s some betrayal of trust.  Smith seems to have taken the point.

Did I say there are some really good quotes in here?

“Anything the power structure wanted to know about blacks in Los Angeles,” said Gilbert Lindsay, “they would say ‘Call L.G.’ Now, this is a janitor. And he was the power for the whole Negro community of Los Angeles! . . . L.G. Robinson spoke for the Negroes.” (4)

another on the role of Central Avenue:

“Central was like a river,” recalled musician Clifford Solomon. “A mighty river like the Amazon or the Nile, or in this case the Congo. And all the streets were tributaries that branched off from this great river.” (4)

There are some great passages really evoking the feel of Central Avenue, an imagined tour heading south past all of the many sights to be seen.

Herb Jeffries bankrolling the Bronze Recording Studios, and the Flash Electronic Laboratories — where ‘engineers strive to perfect their ‘color organ,’ an instrument that can take sound from a radio and translate it into visual energy. Sound is seen; the invisible becomes indigo in your living room. (13)

Before it runs into the white wall…

Though Negroes have moved south to the neighborhood around Vernon and Central, all motion stops here. Mister Jones heard the Klan claimed Slauson and everything below; Lady Creswell heard about the kids put in the county hospital after the police caught them playing on the swings south of the line. Everybody’s got a tale of what happens to those detained in this white man’s land, and enough of it is true that the street has acquired a supernatural power. You and I will acquire a seat on the streetcar. (14)

Later on there’s a note about how the song ‘Open the Door, Richard’ became a catchphrase for ending segregation.

You have to jump that to continue on down south to other great centre of culture, though of a very different kind:

Head down to Watts, from jazz to blues, world of T-Bone Walker who can ‘lift a chair, put it in his mouth, and balance it on end as he plays a frenetic shuffle.’ (15)

Chapter 1 is written about John Kinloch, nephew of Charlotta Bass who is such an inspiration, and such a central figure in the black community here as the owner and editor of The California Eagle. I recognised Kinloch’s name from many of the articles, knew he had gone to fight in WWII and died there. He called Charlotta ‘Madame’, she was his mother’s sister. His mother lived back in Harlem — I didn’t know that. I think this gets Charlotta Bass a little wrong — one central factual error is that her husband Joe Bass was not a founder of the Eagle, rather she inherited it from its founder and hired Joe on. They were partners in life and activism, but he was never more than editor. Still, it’s cool to hear a little more of her from Kinloch’s letters, and the have more life breathed into Kinloch as well. A few other facts about people I’ve written about — Leon Washington was Loren Miller’s cousin.

There are lots of little snippets, fascinating facts. There are paragraphs like this one:

The Harlem Renaissance was cracking up on Central Avenue, its one time elitists dropping by to cash a Hollywood check. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen and Wallace Thurman had all been on its periphery between the early 1930s and the early 1940s as they performed lucrative, if fruitless writing tasks for the picture business. (29)

Some of my favourite writers, some of this made me a little defensive of them I confess, but there you are.

ellington-jump-for-joyMaybe the best thing to come out of reading this book — along with a new unfulfilled and unrequited desire so rare in this modern age —  is finding out about Duke Ellington’s Jump For Joy musical revue. Langston Hughes wrote a sketch for it. It featured Big Joe Turner and Dorothy Dandridge. It proudly proclaimed Black civil rights through songs like “I’ve got a Passport from Georgia (and I’m going to the U.S.A.)”, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Is a Drive-In Now.” It played at the Mayan — where I have danced the night away or watched Lucha — and received death threats from white supremacists. Never filmed, most of these songs have not been recorded. A fucking loss to humanity.

A few more stories, like the one from Howard McGhee of the Charlie Barnet Band, who told the board he refused the draft, refused to fight, refused to go to jail…they sent him to the psychiatrist:

I said, “Well, man, why should I fight? I ain’t mad at nobody over there.” … I said, “Shit, I’ll shoot any son of a bitch that’s white that comes up in front of me.” And they said, “No, we can’t use you.” (38)

Another story about how back in 1919 there was a celebratory banquet at Patriotic Hall for black Angelenos returning from the war, with a mass assembly and parade and military band. I think I remember reading about that, but don’t remember it being mentioned that film of it was used in a film titled Injustice. I’m trying to find it, it sounds awesome and I do believe Joe Bass of the California Eagle is the J. B. Bass who is named as an actor in it. Imagine seeing him walking down the street…

There are more stories about the People’s Independent Church of Christ — I know that church down on 18th and Paloma. Hattie McDaniels celebrated her Oscar there, Jackie Robinson got married there, Adam Clayton Powell Jr preached there…as did Clayton Russell. how did I never know any of that?

There is a rather fascinating comment on noir, which the more I think about it the more it makes sense and is perhaps best exemplified by Chester Himes:

In white noir the hero blinks for a moment, gives in to a single weak impulse, and his life is over. Order shatters around his ankles and we are supposed to realize how much darkness lurks beneath the surface of things when good intentions make way for bad. The moral universe of black noir is different; it’s about realizing good intentions don’t matter any more than bad ones in a world run by white folks. All intentions are equal and equally pointless. All choices in the end amount to one, have the same value — a value determined by people who think you are less than human. (114)

He talks about Bronzeville a little, the short term flowering of Black life, music, culture, bars in Little Tokyo after everyone of Japanese heritage was taken away to the camps. It is one of those more complicated moments of LA history, because while most of the African American said little at the time, there was by the end of the war a recognition of the injustice of it, and some coalition made. But histories of this time and place are made even more complex by things like this that I had never heard of:

By the Fall of 1945, within weeks of the atom bomb falling on Hiroshima and the Nagasaki, the always-looking-for-an-angle club owners of Bronzeville were on the case. Pianist Eddie Heywood was promptly billed as “atomic action manifest” for his stint at Shepp’s Playhouse. The band of Sammy Franklin had abruptly changed it s name to the Atomics, there was a spot called the Atomic Cafe, and you could get your laundry done at the Atomic Cleaners. At the Samba Club, patrons could hear a singer named Francis “The Atomic Bomb” Gray and drink something called an atomic cocktail. (155)

All I could think was damn. That is fucked up.

A little more on geography, and the earliest community in LA:

At the onset of the twentieth century, Azusa Street was an unpaved byway, basically an alley, which dead-ended into the Los Angeles River. It was also said to be the first all-black street in L.A. (160)

William J. Seymour builds his Pentecostal church — the Azusa Street Revival — on the site of first AME church. After the AME church had moved, the land had been used as a tombstone shop then stables.  All of it was built on this land formerly owned by Biddy Mason, once a slave, later a large landowner. These roots run deep.

I’ll end on a song, and a fascinating but not very good one. Still, it’s a symbol of how much changed during the 40s, as well as some of the ways people fought to change it back.

“Shipyard Woman” by Jim Wynn

They said the war is over
And peace is here to stay
You shipyard-working women
Sure did have your way
But it’s all over babe
Now you girls have got to pay (212)

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Luke Cage: Back to Essentials #1 and #2

Luke Cage: Hero for Hire — I loved these, much prefer Luke Cage to Black Panther though I am not sure why… But maybe I am. My adopted home ground may have been South Central LA not NY, but these are the gritty streets, the hustlers, the African American and Spanish-speaking mix, the dirty cops, the unfair prison rap that you can never come out from under, the community clinic hanging on by the skin of its teeth that I know and love… and I know it’s still almost all white writers, but there’s inker Billy Graham and he had a shot or two.

Look at this opening cover. Maybe I love Luke Cage because it is as much (or maybe more) noir than superhero comic, look at the elements up in this mix:

origin-imageTrue enough he’s unlike any superhero before him, just like his background and his neighbourhood — no surprise comics are as segregated as real life.

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Straight out of (prison) hell to Harlem… Of course, it’s no surprise that I should think this is more like noir, because they make it hard to miss. There are all kinds of references, Luke’s just another PI, right?

There’s a homage to Dashiell Hammett in The Claws of Lionfang from Graham and Engelhardt, and a hint to what they’re kind of trying to do, but not too hard given Luke’s doing some of that ‘unromantic’ footwork, but it’s all to find a dude who can control giant cats with his mind:

There’s lot’s of this colourful language, like the writers can finally liberate themselves a little…

img_4868Three hours of expletives that never repeats? Goddamn, now that’s some street.

You gotta love Luke’s reactions to the superhero world too…

img_4870C’mon man…how many times have I said that to myself? Especially reading Iron Fist and those Fantastic All-American Four, but anyway.

I loved this issue. Doom assumes he has to hire a black man to find escaped slave robots who have also disguised themselves as black so they can better hide themselves after they have fled? A creaky setup, but there are some fucking layers here. Reminds me too, of that crazy quote from Ross Macdonald’s The Ivory Grin:

“I think you said she was a Negro”
“I have no race prejudice–”
“I don’t mean that. Black girls are unfindable in this city. I’ve tried.”
— Lew Archer to client

There are these moment when the distance between worlds crystallizes into just a few words, the off-hand commonsensical acknowledgment of just what a segregated society white folks have created, but treat as just the way of things.

Billy Graham comes more to the fore in Retribution, where he is co-scripter and artist. A side story, one of many, showing Luke Cage just can’t stop himself from helping people in trouble, and in this case the victims are the construction workers destroying condemned tenements for ‘yet another round of urban renewal’, and finding themselves trapped (like the tenants once were? are still?).

img_4875See, you’re just not going to find references to urban renewal in the Fantastic Four or the other story lines, not like this. I know I shouldn’t be surprised at the world reflected here in such ways, yet still I am. Something about this black superhero allows things to be seen that are usually ignored completely. Then and now. They are suddenly part of the script, a sudden awareness of another reality.

Of course, the city in these stories plays its traditional role in the American consciousness — dangerous and dirty, home to criminals and those on the run. Still, it’s refreshing to see an ex-prison guard referred to in such terms, who’s the criminal now?

This guard advertises to find a job for himself in the personals? Almost makes you nostalgic….Check out these homemade costumes as well, they are pretty awesome…

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Back to Rich Man: Iron Man — Power Man: Thief. George Tuska artist, Graham inker, Len Wein writer. And the moment Luke Cage becomes Luke Cage (Black) Power Man. A little Black Power never goes amiss. Sadly he also starts calling people sugar.

img_4881Of course in this world you can’t just take on a name like Power Man and think you won’t get challenged by the last dude who had that name already. This is from The Killer With My Name — Tony Isabella with assist from Len Wein, drawn Ron Wilson, inked V Colletta — check out those middle panels:

img_4883Turns out the old Power Man is a bit racist…I enjoyed the shit-kicking Luke Cage gave him. I also liked the ‘my family was so poor…’ joke.

You can see, though, that they keep switching the team around, not like Black Panther who got a solid run at a consistent identity.

On to Essentials Book 2 – My old favourite flowery comic book philosopher, from the Black Panther in fact, Don McGregor writes some deep thoughts in Look What They’ve Done To Our Lives Ma!:

img_4894and Luke Cage faces Cockroach and Piranha. Piranha is a nod to the comic world, Cockroach a nod to the world of slums and predatory hustlers and shitty housing. I like the mix.

img_4895But in later issues the writing starts shifting around, as does Luke’s character. He is more and more violent, thinks less and less, then thinks more… they’re reaching to figure out what to do with him, so there’s Chicago storylines from Marv Wolfman as editor/plot and Ed Hannigan guest scripter, with Mace — just another vet who didn’t get the help with his PTSD that he needed:

img_4896

Luke running around trying to foil some harebrained scheme. And still succeeding with the ladies…

I don’t know why these panels make me laugh at loud, but they do. By the end of the volume it’s C. Claremont and Tuska

img_4900Oh shit, Black Buck? They came out and said it. Luckily there’s some people around to call him on it, sort of.

My favourite issue will be in a separate post — good old Mace starts up a gated community in the middle of nowhere and they try to blow up the Greyhound Bus Luke is on because it comes too close to their territory… I can’t even begin to describe how interesting that set up is to someone working on race and geography. Jaw dropping really. So I’ll keep that separate. It’s been interesting watching Cage change, get reimagined, first to be kinder, then to be more physical — though in truth all he knows to do is just go smashing in no matter what the odds.

I love it.

Sadly at the end he teams up with Iron Fist.

Oh, Iron Fist.

So annoying.

I might write about that essentials Vol. 1, I read them because Luke Cage comes in at the end…I also like the women in those stories I confess.

I might write too about the new Luke Cage series. I enjoyed them immensely,  though I’m a little bit conflicted about some things maybe.

Anyway, to end with a little salute to Billy Graham.

billygraham

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Michael Harris — Noir’s descent

Michael Harris - Where Desert Rivers DieMichael Harris writes noir’s descent into darkness better than anyone else I know. A lot of people can write dark characters in varying shades of too-often cliched and flawed fatalities. But no one quite manages to draw the likeable, decent-if-only-they-weren’t-slightly-too-broken-to-be-decent characters that Harris does, with their tenuous grip on their identity and their thoughts and their lives and their homes and their jobs. The aging men whose pasts are full of ghosts, who have been pushed past their personal line in the sand though you’re never quite sure when that happened. They probably don’t know either, just that it happened back then — childhood maybe. The relationship with their father maybe, their time in prison, Vietnam. They are so vulnerable to that slight, final nudge that will send them circling into a colorful and richly detailed spiral into hell itself, both of psyche and circumstance.

You ache with their vulnerability. You ache too, with the pain they inflict, on themselves and on others. There are no good guys and bad guys, only guys who are trying to be good in spite of everything, and those who gave up a long time ago.

His novella Where Desert Rivers Die exemplifies this.

…is there no end to the blood in the world? He dabs at the nicks with toilet paper, all the while thinking of the toilet itself and the drain in the floor. They pull at him, like Death Valley. Like all those sinks where desert rivers go to die.

You see? Down.

Michael Harris - The Chieu Hoi SaloonThis is slightly lighter fare than The Chieu Hoi Saloon, which we were proud to publish in the Switchblade imprint. That is a long, brilliant and brooding book that builds like a thunderstorm to the finale. It envelops you. Desert Rivers does too, but its length means it is more of a flash and a thrill ride across California up to Colorado, where the point of no return has already been reached before you start and you are already racing towards an uncertain finish. You and Warren both are just waiting for the crash. This is a book you will finish in an evening, but that will linger on with you for a long time. It is a book that means something.

All this praise aside, I love both novel and novella even more when they are set alongside what is perhaps the most beautiful, exquisite novella I have ever read, and that is Canyon.  Also by Michael Harris, not yet available anywhere I don’t think except through a request to the author. A novella of childhood. A novella of wonder.

But all of his work has wonder in it.

Ed McBain: New York from the 87th Precinct

copindexThe introduction to this first novel in Ed McBain’s series on New York’s 87th Precinct Cop Hater is pretty awesome if you like noir and you like cities. First, a primer on the world of hack writing, the regular churning out of quick novels that were then issued and re-issued.

Over lunch, Herb told me that the mainstay of Pocket Books was Eric Stanley Gardner, whose books they reissued on a regular rotating schedule, with new covers on them each time out. He told me Gardner was getting old…and that they were looking for a mystery writer who would eventually replace him.

Luck and skill and prolixity brought Ed McBain to write this series, with an idea then unique — to make the precinct itself the focus, with a cast of characters rather than a principal. I don’t know why it also surprised me to read this:

It is next to impossible to overlay a map of my city on a map of New York. It’s not simply a matter of north being east and south being west or Isola representing Manhattan and Calm’s Point representing Brooklyn. The geography won’t jibe exactly, the city remains a mystery.

The city, then, became a character.

So did the weather, which figures prominently in Cop Hater.

It’s fascinating, then, to find described all of these things I study, redlining, segregation, the shifting racial faultlines of the city and the poverty, misery and changed policing (and increase of police brutality, but you won’t find that here) that it brings with it:

Across the street from the theater was an empty lot. The lot had once owned an apartment house, and the house had been a good one with high rents. It had not been unusual, in the old days, to see an occasional mink coat drifting from the marbled doorway of that apartment house. But the crawling tendrils of the slum had reached out for the brick, clutching it with tenacious fingers, pulling it into the ever-widening circle it called its own. The old building had succumbed, becoming a part of the slum, so that people rarely remembered it had once been a proud and elegant dwelling.

This is the classic white narrative: a grasping and greedy slum, a force of nature reaching out to wrest from them the neighbourhoods they love. It takes over their apartments and their bars, and is often driven by the rising tide of colour:

The flare-ups within the gaily decorated walls of the bar were now few and far between, or–to be poetic–less frequent than they had been in the good old days when the neighborhood had first succumbed to the Puerto Rican assault wave.

Cop_Hater_(Ed_McBain_novel)It doesn’t much matter that he’s nice enough about the Puerto Ricans later in the paragraph, they’re still an assault wave at the white community. This is a world where police are the good guys and the papers are bleeding-heart liberal  — “first three pages of cheesecake and chest-thumping liberalism…”

This is a world where poverty exists and will always exist, same with crime and same with prostitution — anchored into a geography and unchanging. And of course, one that firmly believes whites built the cities on ground after Native Americans peacefully moved along:

La Via de Putas was a street which ran north and south, for a total of three blocks. The Indians probably had their name for it, and the tepees that lined the path in those rich days of beaver pelts and painted beads most likely did a thriving business even then. As the Indians retreated to their happy hunting grounds and the well-worn paths turned to paved roads, the tepees gave way to apartment buildings, and the practitioners of the world’s oldest profession claimed the plush-lined cubbyholes as their own.

Ah, the happy hunting grounds in the sky. It’s both extraordinary, and fucked up, this view that attempts to be that of the common man.

220px-Cop_Hater_posterThat passage also shows that it’s not just racism prominent of course, it’s also misogyny:

The femaleness reached out to envelop him in a cloying, clinging embrace.

The ladies are bound to betray you, but that is a common and well-known failing of theirs.

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King Blood, Jim Thompson’s Tulsa

This contains the best goddamn description of Tulsa, Oklahoma you might ever find:

Tulsa lochopocas. A clanning place of the Osages. It stood at the twin-forks of the Arkansas, near the confluence of the Verdigris; a center of commerce (in so far as there was any) and a conference site long before white man ever set foot on the American continent. Tulsa lochopocas. Tulsey town. Tulsa. Critch had liked the looks of it from the moment he stepped off the train from Kansas City. It was a higgledy-piggledy kind of place, with streets running casually whatever way they damned pleased, and buildings sprawling and crawling all over hell and back in the ages-old pattern of quick money. It was his kind of town, he had thought. An easy-money town. A railroad and river town, a cotton and cattle town. Furs, lumber, foodstuffs. All flowed into and through Tulsa, an endless stream of increment. And now there was even oil, for prospectors with a spring-pole rig had drilled through the red-clay soil to a respectable gusher. In these surroundings, and without refining facilities, it had little commercial value as yet, being almost as worthless as some of those minerals you heard about only in books; uranium, for example. But never mind. There was plenty of money without oil, and the place virtually shouted the news that here one could do whatever he was big enough to do. Thus, Critch saw Tulsa. Correctly, he saw it so. What he did not see was something indefinable, something that far wiser and better men had failed to see at first glimpse of Tulsa (Tulsey Town,  tulsa lochopocas). Men who nominally were big enough to do whatever they attempted.

Even better than that:

More than two hundred years after her off-handed brushing-off of the French trappers and hunters, Tulsa was telling Wall Street to take its underwriting and financing and get hence (or words to that effect). The House of Morgan, et al., were amused rather than annoyed. The notion that an upstart Oklahoma town could itself raise the billions necessary for the proper exploitation of its oil resources was simply laughable. And yet… the upstart town _did_ raise those billions. Not only for itself but for others. And in the end, Wall Street was forced to admit that it had a rival. It remained first, in the big money capitals of the world, as a financier of the oil industry. But little Tulsa – or, rather, not-so-little Tulsa – ranked second to it. So there you were, then. There Tulsa was. A friendly town, an amiable live-and-let live town. A proud town, which liked doing things its own way and knew just what to do with those who would have it otherwise.

Go Tulsa, a town too little described in the annals of literature. sphere_king_bloodIn most other ways, however, Jim Thompson’s King Blood (1973) is offensive and fairly horribly over-the-top in its racism and misogyny. Usually in such accounts by whites of the West, Indians and Mexicans have stony black eyes, impassive faces, they are opaque and unknowable. This book almost makes you wish they had stayed that way for Thompson. At the same time, I confess, it is an interesting exploration of that intersection between pulp and race and manifest destiny. As a general fan of pulp covers I confess I find this grotesque. Where the fuck did they get that photograph. The actual snippets of history in here, though, are hell of interesting. Especially given that Jim Thompson’s father features in it as Sheriff James Sherman Thompson — also known familiarly as Jim Thompson. He’s typing away at an old typewriter when we first come across him. I don’t know why that gave me a shiver. I suppose it is not strange that as Thompson neared the end of his life, he should return to the land and times of his father. It makes the long author’s note near the end a little less incongruous, even stuck as it is in the flow of the text. It identifies the actual historical figures  — the Marshals, the murderesses, the politics of Oklahoma territory and Sheriff Thompson’s big fall from grace tumbling the family fortunes down with him. It admits that everything else — all that mixture of Apache and Creek and African-American blood on the land where Ike King reigns supreme and Apache and poor English is the lingua franca and a strange mixture of violence and hate rules day — all that is invented. What a strange invention though. I hated most things about it, hated the way the ‘squaws’ spoke, the mistaken writing of chango as chongo, the foul descriptions of Geronimo, the twisted ‘Indian’ codes, the scene of torture (that somehow inspired the publisher to chose that cover) and etc etc. Only the history lessons kept me reading, like this one of how the land of Ike’s kingdom was taken and held:

Arlie, Boz and Old Ike had all used their right to stake out homesteads of one-hundred-and-sixty acres. In addition, some fifth of Ike’s lighter-skinned Apache followers wearing city clothes had staked out claims of similar size. Like the Kings, however, they had not made the Run, the race for homesteads, but had ‘soonered’ the land, putting their stakes down on territory which Old Ike had held from the start. ‘You know what I mean, Critch? You savvy “sooner”?’ Critch nodded his understanding. A sooner was a person who slipped across the border ahead of the starter’s gun. In years to come, it was to become an affectionate second-name for Oklahoma – that is, ‘the Sooner state’ – as was Jayhawk to become a nickname for Kansas and Cornhusker for Nebraska. ‘O’ course,’ Arlie continued, ‘there was a lot of fuss about it. But I reckon you know it’d take more’n fuss to move Paw, an’ lucky for him he had the political pull to ride the storm through.’ ‘Good for him,’ Critch murmured. ‘But you’ve only accounted for a few thousand acres, Arlie. How did he recover the rest of his holdings?’ ‘With money,’ Arlie shrugged. ‘I mean, he bought up the homesteaders’ claims. A lot of ’em didn’t have the money to carry them through a bad year, an’ had to sell to Paw. The others – well, they got kind of nervous with so many Indians livin’ around ’em. Got the idea, somehow, that their scalps might wind up on a pole if they didn’t sell. So – ‘ ‘I see,’ Critch said. ‘I think I get the picture.’ ‘Now, don’t get no wrong ideas,’ his brother protested. ‘Maybe they had a leetle pressure put on ’em, but they all got a fair price for their claims. More’n they were worth in most cases. You wouldn’t remember, bein’ away so long, but a heap of the land out here just ain’t fit for nothing but grazin’.

A leetle pressure. Right…. It’s short, so I plowed through to the end, seeking that first promise of Tulsa. Never found it. Liked this though:

I doubt that there lives a man with soul so dead that he doesn’t pray for deliverance from anonymity.

And this:

What does happen to men who can find no other path for themselves than the one occupied by the juggernaut of an onrushing civilization?

Still puzzling over old Ike’s background, how exactly he was connected to the Trail of Tears, the mystery of his whiteness (or lack of it), which is curious in itself.  Curious too about the novel ending there, and the rather spectacular death-by-natural-cause of both Ike and Tepaha, the strange epilogue of sex and accommodation. Above all I’m curious (and angry, and saddened) about this strange cult of violence grown so deep and large that it blots all other human emotions out, all possibilities of cooperation, camaraderie, solidarity — forget about kindness or compassion. It’s so closely tied here  with the expansion of whites across a continent taking everything they could. Despite that underlying fact, it is more obviously associated with the Apaches and the suspect blood of the Kings, the ‘uncivilised’ nature of these savages with their childlike and violently innocent women and their opaque codes of honour. White people got a lot of mileage imposing their own crimes and deepest fears on the peoples they were doing their best to destroy. Tulsa was good at this on both fronts, as Thompson writes:

Tulsa knew just what to do about the Crazy Snake rebellion, the last of the Indian uprisings. She knew just what to do – and she did it – when race riots threatened to destroy the city. She… But that is getting ahead of the story.

So it’s not hard to believe that if there is a good man here it is the Marshal, attempting to impose the ‘honour of law’ on an unruly territory. Marshals and Sheriffs are always (almost always I guess, perhaps, exceptions might have existed) the bad guys in my book, they represent the violence of the state supporting genocide and one of the largest land grabs in known history. Telling that Thompson in the end, however obliquely, comes down on their side, even though he’s capable of recounting with some sorrow the injustice of the Trail of Tears.

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Noir Interlude

371023Just a quote from Ross MacDonald’s The Galton Case: I’ve finished Mark’s stash of three three-book omnibi, and am a little forlorn I confess…

She stood squarely in front of him in a deliberately ugly posture, one hip out, her breasts thrust forward under the white shirt, and at the same time sharp and tender. She didn’t seem to be drunk, but there was a hot moist glitter in her eyes. Her eyes were large and violet, and should have been beautiful. With dark circles under them, and heavy eye-shadow on the upper lids, they were like two spreading bruises. (6)

I do find amusing many of Macdonald’s descriptions of breasts and their emotional ways as if they’re somehow independent of their owners. I’m reading Lanark by Alasdair Grey and funnily enough, he sees breasts in the same way.

Still, I love Macdonald’s language, it is the texture of noir itself at its best. I’ll miss not having a novel sitting here for me to read on the weekend.

The Listening Ear was full of dark blue light and light blue music.

The description of a beat night club is brilliant, as is the poet as is the plot itself with yet another psychological twist showing the terrible things that money does to families (but also, what the lack of it can do).

For one more quote, you can go here.

Conversations with Chester Himes

395789Chester Himes is an author whose work I really love, and this has been sitting on my shelf forever. It starts out a bit disappointing — a bit gossipy about Dick and Jimmy and others. Complaining of this I was reminded that this was pre-internet in French, and what was the likelihood of it getting any circulation?

There was much less need to be cagey in those days.

Still, it is nice to think of Richard Wright and being so generous — once giving Himes $1000 when only asked for $500, giving money to James Baldwin to allow him to finish revising one of his novels and helping him get the Saxton Fellowship. The interviews get better, more thoughtful, perhaps more sober as Himes gets older.

his words stand for themselves really.

I did particularly love some of the details, like this description of his studio in Paris

Himes lives at Saint-Germain-des-Pres, in a top-floor studio on rue Bourbon-le-Chateau. you have to stoop in order to get inside. Nearly everything there is red: the carpeting, a vase of roses, and even an angrily-daubed abstract canvas.
(Francois Bott, 1964)

This was the flat that Melvin Van Peebles moved into. Sweet Sweetback himself.

I love Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, love the Harlem novels, loved to read this:

I was very happy writing those detective stories, especially the first one, when I began it. I wrote those stories with more pleasure than I wrote any of the other stories. And then when I got the end and started my detective shooting at some white people, I was the happiest. (49)

This also reminded me, in a way that still jars slightly with that understanding of America that I learned in school and somehow no amount of education and experience can quite eradicate completely, of the way that the US is founded on violence and how that runs through absolutely everything:

Cause no one, no one, writes about violence the way that Americans do. (47)

Anyway, you know, there is no way that one can evaluate the American scene and avoid violence, because any country that was born in violence and has lived in violence always knows about violence. Anything can be initiated, enforced, contained or destroyed on the American scene through violence. That’s the only thing that’s ever made any change, because they have an inheritance of violence; it comes straight from the days of slavery, from the first colonialists who landed on the American shores, the first slaves, through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Indian wars, and gunslingers killing one another over fences and sheep and one goddamn thing or another; they grew up on violence. And not only that, it’s gotten to be so much a part of the country that they are at the place where they are refining the history of their violence. (62)

It reminds me also how many writers moved abroad to achieve a basic dignity in life.

The only reason for going to Paris is just to have a certain amount of freedom of movement for a limited period of time. (64)

Writers of colour, that is.

WIlliams: What about your experience with white expatriate writers?
Himes: I don’t have any experiences with white expatriate writers. (69)

Later Michel Fabre would ask him if living in Europe had changed him?

Of course. Here a Negro becomes a human being. There’s nothing grotesque about a black man meeting a white woman here. There’s nothing unnatural. (127)

and in describing for him why he stayed in Paris and NY (and responding to a question from Miotte about why not NY), Himes says:

France was an escape from racial prejudice in the publishing industry. I believe that America allows only one black man at a time to become successful from writing, and I don’t think this has changed. France seems to be a place where my talent would make me as successful as Alexandre Dumas. (121)

Himes describes the regular get togethers at the Café Tournon, with Himes, Dick Wright to a limited extent, the centre of them Ollie Harrington. John A. Williams, unsurprisingly, carried out my favourite interviews, a long and nicely in depth one. This is my favourite story from it:

Dick was a compulsive conversationalist in the early hours of the morning. When he woke up he had to telephone somebody and have a long conversation. When Ollie wasn’t there he had to find someone else–Daniel Guérin or even Jean-Paul Sartre. But they got tired of these conversations, so he chose Ollie. As long as Ollie was in town Dick would telephone him as soon as he woke up in the morning, whether Ollie was awake or not (it didn’t make any difference) and have long conversations about the CIA and the race problem and all. You know, that kind of conversation doesn’tgo down too well at seven-thirty in the morning. (77)
— John A. Williams 1970

Michel Fabre, following on the heels of this in the same year of 1970, focused on writing:

I think that writing should be a force in the world. I just don’t believe it is. It seems incapable of changing things. (89)

and Himes’ relationship to Harlem:

…most American black people have kept to ghettos for many reasons, but mainly to hide from the prejudice and the arrogance of white people, and because they wanted to be together, for protection, and togetherness. I didn’t do this, and this is part of the reason why I have to explain myself.  (89)

To David Jenkins in 1971 he gives his thoughts on struggle, which he novelised of course, though didn’t in the end finish it:

I have never fully endorsed the black movements, although I have supported both the Black Muslims–I was a friend of Malcolm X–and the Panthers. I don’t think they will succeed because they are too used to publicity, and a successful revolution must be planned with secrecy, security.

Yet there is no reason why 100,000 blacks armed with automatic rifles couldn’t literally go underground, into the subways and basements of Manhattan–and take over. The basements of those skyscrapers are the strongest part of the building…This was the novel I was wring, and I don’t know if I have the energy or determination to finish it. (102)

The last interview with Michel Fabre in 1983 focused a lot on writing, and I always love to know other people’s routines:

I like to get up early, have a big breakfast, and work at one stretch until it’s time for lunch. If the mail is good, I generally go one with my writing. If it’s bad, my mind is disturbed for the rest of the day. I have nearly always typed my manuscripts, without consulting any reference books or dictionaries. In my hotel room in Paris I only needed cigarettes, a bottle of scotch, and occasionally a good dish of meat and vegetables cooking on the burner behind me. Writing’s always whetted my appetite. (130)

Fabre says he’s sometimes been called a ‘surrealist’ writer, which I suppose makes some sense, I quite love Himes’ answer:

I didn’t become acquainted with that term until the fifties, and French friends had to explain it. I have no literary relationship with what is called the surrealist school. It just so happens that in the lives of black people, there are so many absurd situations, made that way by racism, that black life could sometimes be described as surrealistic. (140)

(Fabre, Michel and Robert E Skinner (eds). (1995) Conversations With Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. )

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Limehouse Nights

Limehouse NightsThat I should find this so utterly vile surprised me, I’m not sure if the surprise came more for its intrinsic vileness or for my own reaction. As a lover of noir I’ve been trying to figure what separates this from the books I love because it is not its subjects or its violence, or the pulp aspect. It is partly the intensity of its racism; but at the same time I don’t believe writers should shrink from exposing that in all of its ugliness.

I realised it come down to the author’s stand. I realised what I love about noir is that the authors tend to write as though they share the same ground as their characters — and many of them do. They do not consider themselves above or below, but as capable of the evil as well as the vaguely heroic acts that may be committed in the face of shared cynicism. This makes glimpses of integrity brighter as the world grinds on and grinds down and they explore the dark places, but if there is any judgment it is hard earned on people’s actions, not skin colour or class position or an outdated set of morals.

This to me is noir at its best, the further a book departs from this, the less I like it. The constant treachery of women is, sadly, usually the biggest departure, but racism runs sexism a close second.

I wouldn’t call Limehouse Nights noir, it is a prurient telling of tales of exoticised others, an exercise in orientalism. The line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ seems clear, and they are there for our amusement even though it is written with a false jocularity that seemingly takes their side. It surprised me, published in 1916, that it should contain such open references to drug-use, rape, interracial sex, pimping, child kidnapping and rape. It physically sickened me that all of it should be so obviously written to titillate, the racial lines drawn only to make their transgression amongst the lowest and criminal classes more exciting. Soft violent porn for the white, middle-class lads at the expense of Limehouse’s population.

No wonder D.W. Griffiths of Birth of a Nation fame used a couple of these stories for his movie-making efforts (Broken Blossoms and Dream Streets).

I started reading it for its geography — misled terribly by the blurb which you can find at the end of this post — got through it a story at a time with distance in between, because I hate not finishing what I start and decided maybe I should try to understand a mentality that I won’t be coming back to.

It constantly refers to place, names streets like Pennyfields, Poplar High Street and Blackwall over and over again, it circles around the Blue Lantern Pub. Yet despite this attempt at ‘realism’, these places still remains the exoticised docks of  white imagination, and could be anywhere:

You know, perhaps, the East India Dock, which lies a little north of its big brother, the West India Dock: a place of savagely masculine character, evoking the brassy mood. By daytime a cold, nauseous light hangs about it; at night a devilish darkness settles upon it.

You know, perhaps, the fried-fish shops that punctuate every corner in the surrounding maze of streets, the “general” shops with their assorted rags, their broken iron, and their glum-faced basins of kitchen waste; and the lurid-seeming creatures that glide from nowhere into nothing–Arab, Lascar, Pacific Islander, Chinky, Hindoo, and so on, each carrying his own perfume. You know, too, the streets of plunging hoof and horn that cross and re-cross the waterways, the gaunt chimneys that stick their derisive tongues to the skies. You know the cobbly courts, the bestrewn alleys, through which at night gas-jets asthmatically splutter; and the mephitic glooms and silences of the dock-side. You know these things, and I need not attempt to illuminate them for you.
— The Father of Yoto

There are minds to which the repulsive–such as Poplar High Street–is supremely beautiful, and to whom anything frankly human is indelicate, if not ugly. You need, however, to be a futurist to discover ecstatic beauty in the torn wastes of tiles, the groupings of iron and stone, and the nightmare of chimney-stacks and gas-works.
–The Father of Yoto

For all that he names the streets, ultimately you have no sense of place, only the sex and violence that takes place there:

Hardly the place to which one would turn as to the city of his dreams; yet there are those who do. Hearts are broken by Blackwall Gardens. The pity and terror and wonder of first love burn in the blood and limbs of those who serve behind the counters of East India Dock Road or load up cargo boats at the landing-stages. Love-mad hands have buried knives in little white bosoms in Commercial Road, and songs are written by the moon across many a happy garret-window in Cable Street.
–The Cue

From Pennyfields he drifted over West India Dock Road, passed a house where a window seemed deliberately to wink at him, and so swung into that Causeway where the cold fatalism of the Orient meets the wistful dubiety of the West.
–Beryl, the Croucher and the Rest of England

Ah yes — where the cold fatalism of the Orient meets the wistful dubiety of the West. The people living in these generic dock streets are as typecast, as empty, as much evoked in our imaginations entirely for our amusement — this passage refers to a fourteen year old dance hall girl uncomfortably sexualised to the hilt:

From him she had inherited a love of all raw and simple things, all that was odorous of the flesh. She hated country solitudes, and she loved Poplar and the lights and the noise of people. She loved it for its blatant life. She loved the streets, the glamour, the diamond dusks, the dirt and the perfume…Every street was a sharp-flavoured adventure, and at night each had a little untranslatable message for her. Everywhere she built romances. She was a mandarin’s daughter in Pennyfields. She was a sailor’s wife in the Isle of Dogs. In the West India Dock Road she was a South Sea princess, decked with barbaric jewels and very terrible knives. She did not like western London: it wasn’t homey. She loved only the common joys of the flesh and the common joys of the heart; and these she found in Poplar.
–Gina of the Chinatown

She dies in childbirth at fifteen.

Not only are streets and people cut off (and happily so) from the rest of the city, but from the country and from nature itself, an island of unnatural connections and natural desires:

Beyond London, amid the spray of meadow and orchard, bird and bee were making carnival, but here one still gambled and waited to find a boat. Limehouse has no seasons. It has not even the divisions of day and night. Boats must sail at all hours at the will of the tide, and their swarthy crews are ever about. It has no means of marking the pomp of the year’s procession. Lusty spring may rustle in the hedgerows; golden-tasselled summer may move on the meadows. In Limehouse there are only more seamen or less seamen. Summer is a spell of stickiness, and winter a time of fog.
–The Paw

Over and over again it licks its lips at the thought of white women with Chinese and Indians and Africans — but mostly the Chinese because this is Chinatown after all. They are loose women because this class knows no better. He mocks their drudgery — more annoying because he has actually bothered to find out what it might consist of and this is one of the only places he describes it to the extent to which it is possible for him:

Pansy was in trouble, and wanted money, of which he had none, for he was a destitute Oriental. Often they had gone about together, and in his way he had loved her. The girls of this quarter have a penchant for coloured boys, based, perhaps, on the attraction of repulsion.

Pansy lived in Pekin Street. About her window the wires wove a network, and the beat of waters, as they slapped about the wharves, was day and night in her ears. At evenings there came to her the wail of the Pennyfields Orient, or the hysterical chortlings of an organ with music-hall ditties. She worked at Bennett’s Cocoa Rooms in East India Dock Road; and life for her, as for most of her class, was just a dark house in a dark street. From the morning’s flush to the subtle evening, she stood at steaming urns, breathing an air limp with the smell of food, and serving unhealthy eatables to cabmen, draymen, and, occasionally, a yellow or black or brown sailor.

She was not pretty. The curse of labour was on her face, and she carried no delicacies wherewith to veil her maidenhood. From dawn to dusk, from spring to spring, she had trodden the golden hours in this routine, and knew, yet scarcely felt, the slow sucking of her ripening powers. Twenty-one she was; yet life had never sung to her. Toil, and again toil, was all she knew–toil on a weakened body, improperly fed; for your work-girl of the East seldom knows how to nourish herself. Pansy lived, for the most part, on tea and sweets.
–Tai Fu and Pansy Greers

This gives too, one of his explanations for miscegenation I think — girls that can get no one else can, by virtue of their skin colour, snare a foreign sailor.

Written always from a comfortable point of superiority, Burke manages to deride many a remarkable achievement — in this case stripping everything away but the fact of a woman who speaks four languages to a greater or lesser extent, I wonder just how much in reality this interracial intercultural exchange took place? But this is not Burke’s point, instead these passages give you a sense of the slime crawling across his pages:

Poppy was fair in the eyes of a Chinaman; she was an anaemic slip of a girl, with coarse skin and mean mouth, a frightened manner and a defiant glance. She had scarce any friends, for she was known to be a copper’s nark; thus came the fear in her step and the challenge in her eyes. Often she had blown the gaff on the secret games of Chinatown, for she spoke Cantonese and a little Swahili and some Hindustani, and could rustle it with the best of them; and it was her skill and shrewdness in directing the law to useful enterprises, such as the raiding of wicked houses, that caused her to be known in all local stations and courts as the Chinese Poppy.

She lived in the tactfully narrow Poplar High Street, that curls its nasty length from Limehouse to Blackwall, and directly opposite her cottage was the loathly lodging of Sway Lim–one room, black and smelly with dirt–next the home of the sailors of Japan.

She was a bad girl, mean and treacherous; everybody knew that; but she was young and very pale; so that Sway Lim, wet-lipped, would gloat upon her from his window.
— The Sign of the Lamp

Of everything — and apparently people have some appreciation of his craft — I really liked only one sentence, and you cannot separate it from the vileness that comes before (or after):

And suddenly, on a bright Sunday, he lost her for all. She went from him to a yellow man in Pennyfields, leaving a derisive note of final farewell. The brutality of the blow got him like a knife on a wound. Something fouled within him, and for an hour or so he was stupid–a mere flabby Thing in a cotton suit.
–The Paw

Nor can he claim ignorance for the casual insulting racism of his language:

“Here–steady on, Chinky!” she cried, using the name which she knew would sting him to the soul. She was disconcerted and inclined to be cross, while half laughing. “Don’t take liberties, my son. Specially with me. You’re only a yellow rat, y’know.”
–The Cue

Nor can he be forgiven for the terrible end of the boy described below — betrayed by his own failings — and Burke’s inability to find a trace of empathy for his characters:

Now while the Captain remained drunk in his cabin, he kept with him for company the miserable, half-starved Chinky boy whom he had brought aboard. And it would make others sick if the full dark tale were told here of what the master of the Peacock did to that boy.
–The Bird

Nor does this phrase make any sense in describing that bright fourteen year old music hall singer that everyone loved until you start to vaguely think through the conflation of race and class and gender within others out there to amuse ‘us’:

She was as distinctive as a nigger in a snowstorm…
–Gina of the Chinatown

There is one curious tale that is also used to bring the aristocratic socialist and female reformer down a notch or two. A collection of  sentences from this story ‘The Kinght-Errant’:

Wherefore it was stupid, stupid, with that ostrich-like stupidity that distinguishes the descendants of noble families who have intermarried with their kind; I say it was stupid for Lady Dorothy Grandolin to choose this, of all places, for her first excursion into slum-land, in order to gather material for her great work: Why I am a Socialist: a Confession of Faith; Together with some Proposals for Ameliorating the Condition of the Very Poor; with Copious Appendices by the Fabian Society. Far better might she have fared in the Dials; in Lambeth; even in Hoxton. But no; it must be Limehouse–and at night. Really, one feels that she deserved all she got.

However, she was determined to do a book on the Very Poor; nothing would stop her. Her little soul blazed in a riot of fine fire for the cause. Yesterday, it was Auction; the day before it was Settlements; to-day, the Very Poor. And in papa’s drawing-room there was no doubt that the Very Poor was a toy to be played with very prettily; for it is the one success of these people that they can do things with an air.

For he was Ho Ling, fat and steamy; and he sidled to her out of the mist, threatening and shrinking, with that queer mixture of self-conceit and self-contempt which is the Chinese character…She had heard that the Chinese quarter offered splendid material for studies in squalor, as well as an atmosphere of the awful and romantic. Her first glances did not encourage her in this idea; for these streets and people are only awful and romantic to those who have awful and romantic minds. Lady Dorothy hadn’t. She had only awful manners.

She is robbed of her watch and a kiss by a pair of dim thieving brothers, one of whom falls in love with her and helps her escape by calling the cops on the other.

As this is a voyeuristic view of Chinatown, drugs are always part of the backdrop. This is from back in the day when cocaine was used medically — here poor little Gina is dying, and you couldn’t ask for a more cloying end:

“Mumdear… ask them for some more of that cocaine… cos… it… it hurts… so.”
–Gina of the Chinatown

It is opium that is used for pleasure, and Burke is clearly describing something he has seen (you are not sure about any of the rest):

Presently Lois swung herself from the lounge and began to “cook” for her boy. On a small table she spread the lay-out; lit the lamp; dug out the treacly hop from the toey and held it against the flame. It bubbled furiously, and the air was charged with a loathsome sweetness. Then, holding the bamboo pipe in one hand, she scraped the bowl with a yen-shi-gow, and kneaded the brown clot with the yen-hok. Slowly it changed colour as the poison gases escaped. Then she broke a piece in her finger, and dropped it into the bowl, and handed the stem to Batty. He puffed languorously, and thick blue smoke rolled from him.
–The Gorilla and the Girl

In this story she cooks it up in the Blue Lantern Pub for her boyfriend while her father looks on.

I’ll end with a passage that collects all of the ‘characters’ from these stories into the Blue Lantern:

All those who were well seen in Limehouse and Poplar were here, and the informed observer could recognise many memorable faces. Chuck Lightfoot and Battling Burrows were engaged in a comparatively peaceable game of fan-tan with Sway Lim and Quong Tart; at any rate the noise they were making could not have been heard beyond Custom House. Tai Ling and his Marigold were there, very merry, and Pansy Greers, with an escort from the Pool, attracted much attention in a dress which finished where it ought to have begun. Ding-Dong was there: Perce Sleep; Paris Pete; Polly the Pug; Jenny Jackson’s Provence Boys, so called because they frequented that café; the Chatwood Kid, from whom no safe could withhold its secrets; and, in fact, all the golden boys and naughty girls of the district were snatching their moment of solace. Old Foo Ah lolloped on a chair, slumbering in the heavy content of a kangaroo. That masculine lady, Tidal Basin Sal, sprawled on a shabby private-bar lounge with a little girl, whom she would alternately kiss and slap proprietorially. A nigger from the Polynesians made himself a nuisance to the air and the company; and on a table at the extreme end stood little Gina of the Chinatown, slightly drunk, and with clothing disarranged, singing that most thrilling and provocative of rag-times:

“You’re here and I’m here, So what do we care?”
–The Gorilla and the Girl

I believe that shall be the end of my forays into this kind of ‘literature’. But before I end, this is the blurb found on goodreads:

One of the most frankly and brutally realistic books that has appeared in our tongue in a long time. But Burke has cast a glamour over his pages that prevents his stories from being merely studies in the sordid and the morbid. Somehow he makes you feel that he has viewed life with pity and tenderness and loving comprehension.
— Bookman.

One of the worst blurbs I’ve read really, as though naming some streets were realism, or patting someone on the head for their appetites and watching with barely-if-at-all-repressed excitement at their descent into sexualised violence and death were tenderness and compassion.

thomas-burke-1-sizedAnd who was Thomas Burke? Someone cared enough to change wikipedia to reflect his complexities and his own falsified autobiographies, citing an article I shall have to go find (Witchard, Anne. “Thomas Burke, the ‘Laureate of Limehouse,”):

These romanticised tales of Burke’s early life were often accepted by the literary critics of the day and went largely unchallenged by his contemporaries. Although Burke’s later writing, including the book Son of London more accurately describes his youth in the suburbs, the majority of his autobiographies attest to his supposedly intimate knowledge of lower-class life.[15] These fabricated autobiographies enabled Burke to establish his authority as an expert on the Chinese in London, allowing him to create a persona that he used to market his fictional works on Limehouse. As Witchard notes, Burke, through his writing, positioned himself as a “seer” in an “occult process” of representing London’s sub-cultural ‘Others.’

I am rather fascinated at this mythological remaking of self and author, this forging of credentials. It is almost enough to make me want to read Son of London but life is short, and there are plenty of authors who have something worthwhile to say.

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New serial of L.A. life from Gary Phillips

Artist: Jeffrey K. Fisher
Artist: Jeffrey K. Fisher

“Best slow your roll, Al,” the one-handed bartender Pierre Gaston said languidly. He took hold of an empty glass between the pincers of his prosthesis. Behind him and above the bottles on a flat screen TV, played a near mute newscast about a truckers’ job action at the port.

That’s why I love Gary Phillips. He writes shit-talking dialogue like no one else, and there’s always a crazy character or two, like a one-handed bartender sitting in the Scorpion Tap. That’s right, the Scorpion Tap. Crazy as they are, they’re still true to the L.A. I know and love. And hate. But mostly love. Because this ain’t the L.A. of Hollywood glitz and glamour, or beaches and West-side wealth, this is where the heart and soul is at. South Central. At least that’s where we’re starting.

The story’s called The Dixon Chronicles, and Gary writes:

Embracing a populist literary tradition that reaches back to Charles Dickens, among others, whose examinations of class conflict in industrializing England were published serially in newspapers, yours truly humbly presents the first installment, chapter if you will in “The Dixon Family Chronicles” on the capitalandmain.com news site.

The webserial follows the interrelated and divergent lives of its three African American main characters. They are Henry “Uncle Hank” Dixon, a handyman living in South L.A.; his niece Jessica “Jess” Dixon, an Iraq war vet who now works in a fulfillment center in Riverside; and her brother, Joseph “Little Joe” Dixon, a one-time pro baller prospect who works as a youth athletic director in Oakland. As the characters deal with everyday life in the Golden State, issues surrounding wage inequality, gentrification, unionization, job insecurity, transportation, and food deserts are woven into their stories.

New chapters will appear each Wednesday at least through the end of this year.

Gary may sound nothing like Dickens, but you can bet I love this calling upon the populist tradition and examining of class (and race) conflict across time and space and vastly different experience. And just as Dickens belonged to London, so Gary belongs to L.A., and I’m looking forward to traveling its streets with him. He starts right in one of my old neighbourhoods, and dealing with the displacement and unemployment that comes with land speculation and that I fought every day of my working life for six years. Can’t wait until next Wednesday…

Of course, this isn’t the first time Gary has written stories in this kind of form — as a writer I’m a little in awe of it, mostly because I just don’t think I could ever manage it. But there’s the comic Bicycle Cop Dave over at fourstory.com, illustrated by Manoel Magalhães. And then there’s the set of stories that eventually became the caper story The Underbelly, that we published at PM Press. All I’m saying is that the man’s got skills, so check out his awesome website.

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