Book review: A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

A Rage in Harlem, original title La Reine des pommes (The Queen of Fools), first US publication entitled For Love of Imabelle. The author’s own title is The Five-Cornered Square.
1957; Penguin classics edition 2011.

Looking eastward from the towers of the Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of grey rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of the sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in a 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.

This passage, occurring just over half-way through this compelling short novel, is one of the very few objective descriptions in it, but it suffices to set the scene of the blistering, relentless account that comprises this classic yet totally relevant book. Jackson is a “square”, who works for an undertaker. He’s besotted by his girlfriend Imabelle, who has introduced him to a man who can turn $10 bills into $100s. In the opening section, Jackson scrapes together all he can for this procedure, but it all goes horribly wrong and he finds himself without a job, without any money, and without Imabelle. Desperate to find her, he seeks out his brother whom he believes can help. The brother lives with two other men, all three of them making a living in such inventive fashions that I can’t spoil anyone’s fun by revealing them here.

Jackson, his brother, various hoodlums, religious leaders and madams of Harlem’s mean streets populate this novel, whose pace never slackens. The plotting is incredibly deft, as we move from set-piece to set-piece seamlessly, with a hilarity that creeps up on the unsuspecting reader as events spiral out of control of character after character who is convinced that he or she has it taped. Jackson’s essential innocence among a city of violent opportunists provides the heart of the novel, as he yearns for his beautiful, lost Imabelle.

Two black detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, become involved in tracking down the perpetrators of the scam in which Jackson and his brother are themselves becoming involved. Although the book is billed as the first in the series about these detectives, they don’t feature very much here apart from in one ambush fairly early on and in the end-game. Nevertheless, their presence, as black detectives charged with keeping the lid firmly on the heaving mass of crime, sex and violence that is Harlem, is pivotal, both in terms of the action and the underlying morality.

This brief novel is compelling and full of humour – humour underlying a dark anger with the plight of the characters living in such grim, relentless poverty and desperation, under different laws from the whites: but never does the social conscience of the novel become obtrusive or even explicit. The constant pace and the effortless sequence of places and circumstances not only draw the reader in but do a much better job at depicting the despair and cruelty of everyone’s lives than any primer of social injustice could convey.

In a wonderful introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel that sets it into context, Luc Sante describes how Chester Himes came to write the book; how he never lived in Harlem nor was acknowledged in the USA at that time. It was when he went to France that he became accepted and was eventually commissioned to write this book, where it was first published.

I received this book free via the Amazon Vine programme.

About Chester Himes (1909 – 1984) at Wikipedia.
In the absence of book reviews on the web, read other reviews of this novel at Amazon.

8 thoughts on “Book review: A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

  1. Maxine – Thanks for this excellent review. I’d heard of this one, but hadn’t read it (yet). I so much admire authors such as Himes who can portray social realities without preaching. Thanks for putting this one back on my “radar screen” 🙂

  2. Thanks for this review. As I was scrolling by, this review popped out at me. I’ve been meaning to read some of Chester Himes’ works for a long time. This may spur me on to do that and soon.
    Unfortunately, Himes and so many other African-American writers and artists felt compelled to move to France where they would not face the kind of discrimination and bigotry so typical of the U.S. then.
    (By the way, there is a review in the New York Times Book Review today of State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, which looks interesting; a mystery element, moral dilemmas on scientific/medical research, etc.)

  3. Thanks, Margot and Kathy. I think this one well worth a read, and it’s only 200 pages long.
    I have seen a few reviews of that Ann Patchett book – will check it out more thoroughly, thanks. And returning to Himes, the into in this edition provides some of the background you mention in your comment, it is a fascinating essay. I knew about the ex-pat Americans living in France at that time for reasons of cultural and artistic appreciation, but I had not previously been aware of the African-American connection. Now I am.

  4. We read this and another of his books, If He Hollers let Him Go for English Lit (except it was called something wanky like World Expressionism) when I was at Uni about a hundred years ago. I was way too young and naive to really understand them then (my little corner of the world was very white and suburban and the poverty and racism that I’m sure existed was well hidden from my delicate eyes and ears) – it wasn’t until I travelled after leaving Uni that I started to even get a hint of how real some of the experiences they depicted were – I read If He Hollers again after moving to western Sydney (where racism was – to me- gobsmackingly rampant) and then spending a few months travelling the US (where it was on a different level again) – it was like reading a different book the second time – absolutely gripping and heart-wrenching then – talk about grim despair though

  5. I know exactly what you mean about reading a book when you are too young to have direct experience or observational knowledge, Bernadette – this was the case for me with Cannery Row for example. If you haven’t read this particular book (A Rage in Harlem) you’d probably enjoy it just because it masks the justifiable anger with humour, rather than being so obvious about it (as I have found some modern books about similar problems).

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