Monday, April 23, 2012

Ghetto Superstars

Cotton Comes to Harlem
Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cotton Comes to Harlem is an enjoyable and fast-paced detective thriller that reads almost like a screenplay due to its taut plotting, constant action, and a near constant focus on visuality. Of course, Himes does not sacrifice any of his sharp perspective the racial politics of America in the mid-twentieth century in service of genre approachability, though he takes a more vaudevillian, high entertainment approach when compared to the seething psychology of If He Hollers Let Him Go. For the record, I find the earlier novel to be a far more emotionally engaging and soulful work, though I can't deny this one is more immediately satisfying in many ways. Perhaps the most apt comparison would be between the endings of each work. The end of Cotton Comes to Harlem feels entirely pat to the point of almost appearing to be the last thirty seconds of another episode of "Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson Lay Down the Law," whereas If He Hollers Let Him Go packs a gut punch of an ending that wrenchingly twists the book's emotional and political faultlines into a wiry ball of perfect madness.

But you have to hand to Himes for illustrating characters as indelibly as he does here. Harlem feels so richly populated, and Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson were dirty long before Harry. Of course, their moral ambiguity deals with the complex questions that arise in the politics of an oppressed community rather than being an avatar of proto-fascism, Clint Eastwood-style. They crack wise and banter in a manner that predicts the interactions of so many later movie and TV cops, though it feels fresher and thicker in this more original context.

Altogether, it's a fun, slick read, though I'm not sure how many details will stick with me in the long run.

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