Sunday, March 24, 2013

If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes

In WWII Los Angeles, a black man is driven to the brink of madness by racism

This was a spare powerful book. In vivid economical scenes, with no wasted dialogue, Himes paints a picture of working class LA, a book in which the headlong plot supports a social commentary. The entire story takes place over a few days. The angry narrator, Bob Jones, is a black welder in a booming shipyard, where poor Southern whites compete for jobs with poor Southern blacks. Bob, who is always at pains to let people know he’s from Ohio, not the ignorant South, lives each day in a constant state of rage because of the contempt and insults he must swallow if he wants to earn a living. Bob has been promoted to crew chief of an all black crew. When Madge, a racist southern woman, calls him a nigger, he calls her a cracker bitch and gets demoted.  Rounding off his day, the Southern white men beat him for insulting a white woman. The rest of the story is Bob struggling with his desire for murderous revenge (which he knows full well will mean his own extinction), as well as his sexual curiosity about Madge. (He’s right in thinking she’s a little sexually curious about him too.) Meanwhile, Bob (who is not the monogamous type) has a light skinned girlfriend, Alice, from one of the top black families in LA. She urges him to go to law school, to accept the reality of their subordinate situation and have patience that it will eventually improve. But Bob is unable to emotionally accept a second class status, needs his revenge, and therefore the plot comes to an unsurprising head. The ending, where Bob is saved by an implausible twist, felt opportune.

The book asks other questions: Should you fight and go down in flames still retaining your pride or do you submit to injustice and live?  Alice counsels that they will only be happy if they live their lives privately – quietly accept their inferior status in public, but save their real feelings, their real fulfillment, for private. Bob seems to agree with her, but then provocation after provocation cause him to lash out. The most powerful scene in the book was the scene where he humiliates Alice by taking her to the Biltmore only to find out, as Alice knows full well and he suspects, that the Biltmore doesn't want colored patrons.  She prefers to ignore her second class status and he won’t let her.

The narrator is so angry (at whites and at women) that it’s amazing that the book is filled with insights, about men and women, about anger, about sex, and about the different levels of Los Angeles society. Despite his intellectual knowledge, Bob still walks right into the traps laid for him.  At the end of the book, things feel truly hopeless.

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