Writing Absurdity

Adam Shatz

  • Chester B. Himes: A Biography by Lawrence P. Jackson
    Norton, 606 pp, £25.00, July 2017, ISBN 978 0 393 06389 9

On 21 April 1930, a fire broke out in the state penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, a wretched, segregated prison where more than 4000 men were packed into a facility built to hold 1500. By the time it was extinguished, 322 prisoners lay dead, and the National Guard was called in to suppress rioting. Among the survivors was Chester Himes, a twenty-year-old black man serving a twenty-year sentence for armed robbery. Himes had already seen his share of troubles but, as Lawrence Jackson writes in his impressive biography, they ‘did not inspire him’ the way that ‘stumbling through the gore of two cell block tiers’ worth of burned-alive men’ did. After the fire, Himes began to write fiction on a typewriter he had bought with his gambling winnings, and four years later he published a story about the fire in Esquire. As the prison was engulfed in flames, Himes had seen its clandestine eroticism come into the open, in a carnival of the damned. A convict called Broadway Rose put on a sex show, and the prison’s ‘boy-girls’ offered their services in cells covered by red curtains. In Himes’s ‘To What Red Hell’, it’s the fire that enables this liberation of desire, before extinguishing it: ‘Oh, Lawd, ma man’s dead,’ a black prisoner called Beautiful Slim says, mourning his lover. Yet death also has a levelling effect: Blackie, the white protagonist, observes that all the dead, white and black, have the same ‘smoke-blackened flesh’.

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