Review | A Rage In Harlem by Chester Himes

A Rage in Harlem is a 1957 crime novel by Chester Himes, the novel follows Jackson, an honest man trying to find his way through the chaotic and dishonest world of 1950s Harlem, New York. Chester Himes style of writing in this novel almost resembles a jazz piece as each chapter presents new hectic and morbid confrontations with conmen, cops, prostitutes, and morticians.

The Harlem Himes presents is one where one constantly needs his wits to make it in a place ravaged by poverty, crime, and systemic racism. Himes brings Harlem to life, not by moralising the state of the locale, but rather presenting the reality of poverty, crime, and racism as widely accepted facts of life. There are no characters who rail against the systems of violence faced by black people, instead, it's presented as part of the livelihoods of the characters.

The plot of A Rage in Harlem can be rather difficult to follow at times as characters from different gangs with nicknames and varying motivations collide in a chaotic whirlwind. However, this also adds to the sense of madness which keeps the protagonists making spur of the moment decisions that drives them deeper and deeper into trouble.

The novel is littered with a morbid sense of humour which won’t be for everyone (especially in the current climate). But that same dark humour in the face of a nihilistic and selfish world is not too distant from the kind jokes we see from today’s internet culture that ridicule those in power and the perverse suffering inflicted on society’s most vulnerable. The humour of Chester Himes is one that mocks the absurdity of living through poverty and the lengths black Americans in the 1950s had to go through just to get by.

Himes’ writing is brutal, funny, and sharper than anything put out by his white contemporaries. It cuts right to the chase and doesn’t let up. It’s also wildly entertaining filled with memorable characters like Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones the grim black detectives who keep order on the streets, and Jackson’s brother the nun impersonating stoolpigeon Goldy. What resonates most is the sharp observations about the relationship between the clueless white cops and the black community reluctantly under their boot; that is what makes A Rage in Harlem a truly relevant novel in today’s climate.

Andrew Krska, Publishing Assistant

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