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Rage in Harlem (Penguin Modern Classics) - Chester B. Himes ”Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem.”

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For Love of Imabelle paperback first edition

This book was originally published in a paperback original under the title For Love of Imabelle which if you read this book you will understand how apt that title really is. In the 1980s an English publisher named Allison & Busby decided to reprint the Harlem Cycle in hardcover. They used the artwork of Edward Burra for the covers and for a collector like me, despite the fact that they used cheap paper with acid which is turning the pages brown, I will of course have to own a set.

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Savoy Ballroom by Edward Burra

Chester Himes is an interesting fellow. He was born in Jefferson City, Missouri in a middle class family. Both of his parents were teachers. He was accepted and expelled from Ohio State University. In 1928 he was sent to prison for armed robbery and instead of sitting around staring at four walls worrying about his next trip to the showers he started writing short stories. He sent them out for publication and they were published. For those struggling writers out there, a stint in prison seems to lend focus to your work and publisher’s still love writers with a checkered past. Not that I’m advocating prison, but maybe a monastic stint would be worthwhile to try and heat up your keyboard. Himes was originally given 25 years for his crime, but was released early in 1936 into the custody of his mother.

”There were pictures of three colored men wanted in Mississippi for murder. That meant they had killed a white man because killing a colored man wasn’t considered murder in Mississippi".

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Chester Himes

In the 1950s Himes moved to Paris and adjusted well to a Bohemian lifestyle. This was a productive period for him; in fact, this book was part of that era with a publication date of 1957. His circle of friends in Paris included: Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, Carl Van Vechten, Picasso, Jean Miotte, Ollie Harrington, Nikki Giovanni and Ishmael Reed. When the group decided to move on to Spain Himes went with them where he died from Parkinson’s Disease in 1984. I can only imagine how inspiring it was to be around such talent, creativity, and also to be with people who wouldn’t judge him for having a white wife.

”Imabelle was Jackson’s woman. She was a cushioned-lipped, hot-bodied, banana-skin chick with the speckled-brown eyes of a teaser and the high-arched, ball-bearing hips of a natural-born amante. Jackson was as crazy about her as moose for doe.”

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In the movie version from 1987 Forest Whitaker plays Jackson and Robin Givens plays Imabelle.

Jackson was a short, stumpy, round man with limited intelligence, and for him to get time with a high yella woman like Imabelle was like being in heaven on earth. The problem is having a woman like that makes a man ambitious and make him worry about how much money he makes. Jackson was a prime candidate for a sting. He is introduced to a man, an acquaintance of Imabelle, who has this special paper that when baked with a ten dollar bill in an oven will turn that ten dollar bill into a hundred dollar bill. Before you get excited and start looking for this magical paper...it didn’t work. If you think it is crazy to even think that a scheme like that would work that is simply because you haven’t met Imabelle.

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Goldy made the cover of a later edition.

One of the more fascinating characters in the book is Jackson’s twin brother Goldy who makes his living masquerading as a nun under the moniker Sister Gabriel. He walks the streets selling “tokens to heaven” and keeping his eye peeled for any business that might be going on that could prove to be profitable for a Sister of Mercy.

”There were more bars on his itinerary than on any other comparable distance on earth. In every one the jukeboxes blared, honeysuckle-blues voices dripped stickily through jungle cries of wailing saxophones, screaming trumpets, and buckdancing piano-notes; someone was either fighting, or had just stopped fighting, or was just starting to fight, or drinking ruckus-juice and talking about fighting.”

Goldy has another problem that keeps him NEEDING money. Jackson on the run from schemers and cops comes to his brother for help.

”Goldy there’s something I want to ask you.
I got to feed my money first.
Jackson looked about for the monkey.
He’s on my back, Goldy explained.
Jackson watched him with silent disgust as Goldy took an alcohol lamp, teaspoon and a hypodermic needle from the table drawer. Goldy shook two small papers of crystal cocaine and morphine into the spoon and cooked a C and M speedball over the flame. He groaned as he banged himself in the arm while the mixture was still warm.
It’s the same stuff as Saint John the Divine used, Goldy explained.”

Now mixed up in all of this trying to make heads or tails out of what exactly is going on are two cops who are the focus of the Harlem Cycle, although in this book they are only in a few key scenes.

”Grave Digger and Coffin Ed weren’t crooked detectives, but they were tough. They had to be tough to work for Harlem. Colored folks didn’t respect colored cops. But they respected big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed’s pistol would kill a rock and that Grave Digger’s would bury it.”

And when they have suspects lined up under their guns they always offer them some really down home advice. ”Don’t make graves.”

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The Scarlet Woman

Jackson gets separated from Imabelle and spends most of the novel trying to find her, never once doubting her motives. She has had a bit of a rough time herself hanging around with those scheming criminals, trying to avoid church going men wanting to solicit her charms, and keeping out of the hands of the police.

”Jackson had just time to see that she was dressed in a red dress and a black coat before she fell into his arms. She smelled like burnt hair-grease, hot-bodied woman, and dime-store perfume. Jackson embraced her, holding the iron pipe clutched against her spine. She wriggled against the curve of his fat stomach and welded her rouge-greasy mouth against his dry, puckered lips.”

I think I need a shower after just reading about that hug. Do you suppose that scarlet dress has any significance? hmmm I can guarantee you significant or not Jackson doesn’t care.

This book really surprised me. I thought it was going to be one thing and turned into something different. The plot is so convoluted you might need to draw a chart with colored arrows and overlapping circles. Don’t let that worry you. Himes will bring it all together for you with a nice bow. I laughed out loud several times and these days a writer really has to sneak up on me to do that. The descriptions as you can see from the few bits I shared are purple; and yet, shaded with so much originality they are a pleasure to go back and read several times. The drug use and a transvestite nun had to make this book a bit of a controversy in 1957. When I talked about it with a buddy of mine on the phone, who had read it as well, I could hear the grin on his face and there was an equally wide smile on my face as well.