For the past several months, I’ve been sucked into the L.A. Weekly‘s “Best L.A. Novel Ever” tournament. They started with thirty-two books. I’d read almost half of them previously. I’d seen the movies for four or five more. I’d taught a half dozen of the books, at least.
The tournament divided the novels into four regions. Not surprisingly, I was most familiar with the novels in the “Noir” and “Rebels & Outcasts” regions. I was almost completely ignorant of the “Hollywood” region. I guess my reading matches my L.A. experiences.
Novels went head-to-head and worked their way through the brackets. I didn’t want to talk about this contest to anyone until I found out who won. Now that I know, I’ll throw in my two cents’ worth.
If you want to read the whole competition without knowing who wins, stop reading my blog post now and go the the contest link at the L.A. Weekly.
First off, any “best novel ever” competition is inherently flawed. We all know that. Novels are subjective beasts. They depend on your personal tastes, where you are in your life when you read them, how much you can or can’t relate to the world of the novel, how the novel speaks to you, etc. Our relationships with novels are intimate and personal. Saying a novel is “the best” is like saying your kid is the cutest.
Second off, it’s fucking awesome that Chester Himes won it all. I’ve been trying to push Himes on people for years. I love his Harlem crime novels with Coffin Ed Johnson and Digger Jones. Rage in Harlem is in my top three crime novels of all time. I’m not even sure what the other two in the top three would be.*
Himes’s Harlem novels inspired my writing of Train Wreck Girl. Himes has the ability to draw me into a world completely foreign to me, teach me the lingo, and make me feel like an insider. Though I’ve never been to the Harlem that Himes writes about, I feel like his novels bring me inside. I wanted to capture working class Florida, and particularly the neighborhood in Cocoa Beach where I lived for years, with the same kind of insider’s feel in Train Wreck Girl. In no small way, that novel is my take on a Himes novel.
What I really like about Chester Himes are his non-crime novels. His short stories, especially the ones that cover his time in prison, are heartbreaking. I can never plow through writers’ memoirs, but I read both volumes of Himes’s. His first novel If He Hollers, Let Him Go, is probably his most powerful. It’s raw. It rambles and runs all over the place. It’s also one of the most honest novels I’ve ever read. Himes is clearly trying to understand something about racial and economic injustice against the back drop of World War II. As a reader, we get to muddle through this world with Himes, searching for the answers to the same questions Himes can’t answer.
If He Hollers, Let Him Go is one of those novels that never seems to make it into multicultural literature classes. Those classes tend to focus on celebratory multiculturalism–the idea that we’re all the same on the inside, that we’re just like the hero of the book, that skin color doesn’t matter. Himes doesn’t give us that in this book. He shows us that we’re not all the same on the inside because we’ve all been shaped by our particular experiences, which are all different. Skin color does matter. We’re not “just like” Bob Jones, the protagonist of If He Hollers, Let Him Go. Some of us can perhaps understand his frustration and his anger, but none of us can put ourselves in the unique historical moment that he endures.
Bob Jones is a hard character to love. At one point, he seriously considers raping a woman. When he decides against it, the reader can’t be relieved because we have to watch Jones beat himself up for not raping the woman. Bob Jones is an even harder character to hate. Everything he does seems to make sense in context. That context is so bizarre, so maddening, that judging Bob Jones becomes secondary to wrestling with the injustices of the world that create the context.
Try working through that in a multicultural literature class.
Actually, I have. It was one of the most successful books I’ve taught.
If He Hollers, Let Him Go was greeted with mixed reviews when it came out in 1945. Himes himself largely regarded it as a failure. It’s in print now, thanks to the success of his later crime novels, but it seems to go in and out of print regularly. It’s never really gotten its due as a seminal novel for understanding race and class relations in the U.S.** Now, the L.A. Weekly has run four reviews of it in the last few months. It won the title of Best L.A. Novel Ever.
I can’t say I would’ve given that title to this novel, but I was rooting like hell for it after round one. I’m stoked Himes won.
I’m glad, too, that L.A. Weekly put all this time and effort into talking about books. It seems so rare to come across that in the mainstream media.
*Actually, I know what the other two would be: The Long Goodbye and Inherent Vice.
** Though I gave it its due in my column for Razorcake, Issue 48.