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By James Sallis.


384 pages, $28

On Dec. 18, 1928, Chester Himes was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus.


He was 19. This penitentiary was one of the worst prisons in the United States. In 1930 fire swept through the prison and took the lives of 300 convicts, many of them trapped in their cells.

It was in prison that Himes began writing fiction. His first major short story, "Crazy in the Stir," appeared in the August 1934 Esquire with the byline, "59623." He was the real deal for Arnold Gingrich, editor of that elite mid-century Esquire who read Himes as a hardcore prison writer, not as a black writer. Gingrich published six of 59623's stories. None of the stories was about blacks.

In prison, Himes entered Anglo-American literature. He was in Esquire with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. No mention was made of his race. "Yesterday Will Make You Cry," his great prison novel, has a white protagonist, Jimmy Monroe. The novel is not about race. It is about prison life and convict love.

Gingrich was an important figure at the start of Himes' career, encouraging and enabling Himes' brilliant prison writing, just as, in Paris during the 1950s, Marcel Duhamel, editor of Gallimard's "Le Serie Noir," applying similar genre constraints, got from Himes the crime fiction that is his best work. What do we do with these Anglo-American and French editors, with their literary desires, and with these categories in African American literature?

Himes is huge in mid-century African American literature, as important a race writer as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. He is their peer, though nothing he wrote ever matched the realist majesty of Wright's "Native Son" or the modernist audacity of Ellison's "Invisible Man." Himes' major achievement is his crime fiction, "The Harlem Cycle," nine slim, quick novels, the most famous of which is "Cotton Comes to Harlem" (1964).

He wrote Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison novels, very good ones and major pieces in mid-century African American writing, the most famous of which is "If He Hollers Let Him Go" (1955). He also wrote classical African American autobiography, Wrightian in mode, Ellisonian in style. But in crime fiction, Himes is singular, free. "The Harlem Cycle" is Himesian, sui generis.

So the shackle is on him just as he is most free in his writing. Duhamel told Himes what he wanted: "Always action in detail. Make pictures. Like motion pictures. Always the scenes are visible. No stream of consciousness at all. We don't give a damn who's thinking what -- only what they're doing. Always doing something. From one scene to another. Don't worry about it making sense. That's for the end. Give me 220 typed pages."

Himes saw the racist and cultural prejudice in that French desire -- that French demand, good-hearted as it was, Duhamel wanting only to put francs in Himes' depleted bank account. Leave Proust to the French, it said. Do the American noir thing -- "always doing something." "Stir Crazy," Esquire told its readers in 1934, was "an authentic story about life on the 'inside' " told by "a long-term prisoner in a state penitentiary." Here he was again -- same editor, same opportunity, same constraint.

Himes was at first uneasy in the project; he was uncertain about his angle. "I would sit in my room and become hysterical thinking about the wild incredible story I was writing. But it was only for the French, I thought, and they would believe anything about Americans, black or white, if it was bad enough." The two moments, the two genres, the two metaphors, come together in Himes' imagination. Harlem is now the prison, and this time it is the guard's story, the doings of Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. They are "native" police, black cops. In his double shackle of constructing a weird Harlem for Duhamel, Himes had his liberating alibi, a poetic license.

The shift in perspective changed everything. It put Himes outside both camps -- weird violent Harlem and furious disgusted black cops -- and gave him ironic distance. His protest race writing became double-bound tragic race writing. He would develop and complicate the characters of Gravedigger and Coffin Ed as James Fenimore Cooper developed and complicated Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in the "Leatherstocking Saga."

Gravedigger and Coffin Ed live on Long Island but have a Southern formality to their bearing. They wear "dark battered felt hats and wrinkled black alpaca suits," look like "rural plowhands in Sunday suits," and are at first just single-minded powerful detectives on the prowl in weird violent Harlem. Near the end of "The Harlem Cycle," riot-blasted Harlem is in several states of cognitive dissonance and ethical confusion. Southern Baptist simplicity is no longer available. Gravedigger and Coffin Ed discuss the situation with a black radical, Michael X.

"The Harlem Cycle" is like Cooper's "Leatherstocking Saga," but told from Chingachgook's point of view.

James Sallis' "Chester Himes, a Life," breaks ground for what will be the Himesian field in American biography, but its furrow is too broad and meandering. The terrain it establishes is ultimately too limited. "Chester Himes, a Life" is not a scholarly biography; it doesn't have the useful minutiae such biography impeccably delivers, and it is not a genius peer interpretation. It is neither trope centered or interestingly motivated. The note of the fan, the voice of the devotee, everywhere sounds in Sallis' narration. If only Himes' militant avant-garde work had appeared in Toni Morrison's 1980s, Sallis laments, Himes would have had an important public. He would have gotten the respect and monetary reward he so richly deserved. "But Chester was always there at the station too early, taking the train alone." So there is that voice to deal with -- the voice of the biographer who calls his subject by his first name.

Yet it is all there -- life, work and context; Chester Himes, 1909-1984, assembled and chaptered. There is some luminous detail and some apt citation. Here is Melvin Van Peebles meeting Himes in Paris for the first time, gazing upon "a not quite medium-built man with European features and caramel-colored skin, a dashing figure, in matinee idol sort of way, his rakish features made even more handsome by several wicked scars lining his face." Van Peebles had come to Himes' apartment in the morning, and as he entered he saw the remains of Himes' breakfast, caviar and toast. "Monsieur Chester Himes, le grand ecrivain americain," was at work in his Paris apartment constructing a wild and woolly Harlem for his devoted French public.

Maybe the Esquire deal that Himes had with Gingrich was a pact with the devil. Himes certainly felt he gave up some part of his writer's soul in mangling a gutted "Yesterday Will Make You Cry" into "Cast the First Stone." The editors at Coward-McCann wanted an unproblematic prison novel with lots of action and no soliloquies. Sallis is too easy around this important epoch in Himes' life and career.

"Chester Himes, a Life," is a soft admiring biography.

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