Despite the appalling turgidity of his prose, Sallis (Gently Into the Land of the Meateaters, p. 289, etc.) successfully salvages the life and literature of Chester Himes from critical and readerly neglect.
Sallis covers the basics of biography well, beginning with Himes’s birth in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1909 and covering the details of his life with a moderately careful eye. Raised in middle-class comfort in an educationally minded family, Himes ended up in prison after being convicted of robbery; he was sentenced to hard labor and served seven-and-a-half years. These years were pivotal ones, and Himes later drew upon his experiences extensively in his Harlem Cycle novels, which feature his famous characters Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Sallis does not shy away from the disturbing aspects of Himes’s past, painting his subject as a man with true faults and weaknesses. These positive aspects of the biography, however, cannot mask its many problems. Baroque prose muddies the biographical waters, as allusions flow freely into an otherwise focused narrative. Must the reader know that Himes’s mother would have taken Wallace Steven’s “Let be be finale of seem” as her personal motto, had she lived long enough to read him? The most trivial biographical details are sunk in a sea of cultural cross-references, such as when Sallis describes how Himes’s mother dressed young Chester in girl’s clothing—as did Rilke’s mother! Combine this pestering pedantry with a firm dependence upon excessive quotations from Himes’s literature and autobiography, and the result is a work that fails to find its own voice.
Himes deserves a new audience for the 21st century—unfortunately, he also deserves a better biography than this one.