Literary Idol: Nelson George on Chester Himes
Literature is a lonely art, but writers keep company with the heroes on their bookshelves. We asked five Festival of Books participants to pay tribute to authors who inspired them.
I grew up reading very respectable, socially conscious black literature by the likes of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. “Native Son,” “Invisible Man” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” were the kind of worthy books at the top of any official reading list about the African American experience when I was a teenager in the 1970s. After being baptized in black lit, I expanded my literary worldview by diving deeply into “the lost generation” writings of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos and their peers. All of these writers informed my development.
But it wasn’t until one hot summer when I fell under the sway of the ribald, disreputable, restless prose of Chester Himes that I found my truest muse.
I knew Hollywood made a pre-blaxploitation movie out of his “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon four of his series of books featuring detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones in a bookstore that I found a true calling. Himes, who wrote his noir books about Harlem while living as an expat in Paris, had a vigorous prose style, a deadpan sense of humor and unending cynicism about human charity.
“A dead man was always good to see. It was reassuring to see somebody else dead. Generally the dead men were also colored. A dead white man was really something. Worth getting up any time of night.” This selection from “Blind Man With a Pistol,” published in 1969, captures Himes’ point of view on race, death and humor. It made me want to write my own novels in this style.
Years later, I have now done a series of noir books based on a character named D Hunter, each one a walk in the dark shadows of the human soul Himes knew so well. He did several “serious” novels in the Wright/Ellison tradition, but there’s a looseness and freedom in Himes’ crime novels that, to this day, serve to both amuse and inspire me.
Nelson George will appear at the Festival of Books on April 18. He is an author, filmmaker and television producer. His most recent book is the novel “The Lost Treasures of R&B: A D Hunter Mystery.”
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