Chester Himes is primarily known for his crime novels and I bet if you’ve never heard of him, you have heard of A Rage in Harlem and Cotton Comes to Harlem, but he also wrote Blind Man with a Pistol, and The Real Cool Killers. I am not a huge fan of that crime fiction, but I do think this book is good. I decided to finally read this one after it was referenced in the collected Ralph Ellison letters. Ellison thinks this novel is quite strong, but is disappointed by pretty much everything that comes after this one.
The novel was published in 1945, after Himes got out of the Army, and it clearly positions itself as a kind of continuing the conversation of race in Native Son, which the characters in this book directly reference. In this novel, they felt that the degree of difficulty in Native Son was purposely too high (ie creating a character so lost and so violent that the argument for his humanity was just too much to ask for) and it’s not something I entirely disagree with. In this novel, we have Bob Jones living his life in relatively normal ways, but catching constant crap from cops, from work, and from other nodes of a racist society. What stands out in this one is not an attempt to make Jones be everyone, or to be an angel, but to be a completely regular and normal person. What also stands out here is that it’s a California novel, and while of novels portray Black characters in California, so much of 20th century with Black lead characters happen in New York, Chicago, or the South. So this one shifts that around a lot. It also feels like one of those novels that is from one time (1945) but feels more contemporary. For example, when I read Native Son it feels to me much older than it actually is, while Invisible Man feels exactly as old as it is. This one feels like it could comfortably be from 1965 or so.