cover image Chester Himes

Chester Himes

James Sallis. Walker & Company, $28 (350pp) ISBN 978-0-8027-1362-9

Novelist and critic Sallis (Bluebottle; etc.) delivers a satisfying, thoughtful, long-overdue biography of Chester Himes (1909-1984), a singular American writer and fascinating figure. Sallis outlines the author's threefold marginalizationDas a WWII-era literary realist, as a crime novelist and as an African-American writer, a colleague of Wright and Baldwin. With unflagging clarity, he embarks on simultaneous explorations of Himes's writing and his tumultuous personal life. Sallis details Himes's upbringing in a fragmented, middle-class family, his brief infatuation with crime and the inception of his writing career in an Ohio state prison, during which time his work appeared in Esquire. In the 1940s and '50s Himes found himself in a cycle of literary aspirations and disappointments, epitomized by Jack Warner's memorable dismissal: ""I don't want no niggers on this lot."" Sallis weaves such accounts in with his solid discussions of Himes's important early novels, tightly atmospheric works that failed to find an audience in the racially charged climate. During Himes's expatriation in Europe, financial difficulties drove him toward surreal detective fiction, which won him acclaim late in life, as his health declined. Sallis's astute, writerly riffs on American inequities and literary vagaries zero in on what haunted Himes even in exile. As an ""outsider"" writer who forged unsettling social panoramas through violent fiction, perhaps Himes's only equal is Jim Thompson, and, similarly, Sallis's pithy book has the import of Robert Polito's biography of that better-known master of American crime. B&w photos. (Feb. 22) Forecast: Booksellers may note the appeal of this title to readers of mystery, literary history and African-American studies, and score a trifecta.