Good Lord. A Rage in Harlem. Chester Himes. What a wild ride this one was. And all the better since I listened to the audio version read by all around icon Samuel L. Jackson.
In the simplest, boiled down summary I can give, A Rage in Harlem is about Jackson and his woman Imabelle and what happens when they get caught up with a group of con men.
What that summary doesn’t cover is the totally wild, absurd, occurrences along the way. Or the larger than life characters we come in contact with.
Jackson is a good man, trusting and kind. He’s called a square more times than I could count. And he loves Imabelle, his woman. He wants to marry her but first she has to get a divorce from her man in the South. But he wants to help take care of her so he gives all the money he has in the whole world to a man who can change $10 bills into $100s. But a US Marshal comes and busts up their plans. Only he isn’t really a Marshal, he’s working with the money guy.
To fix things, Jackson steals money from his boss, loses it gambling, and then has to turn to his twin brother Goldy to help him regain it. Goldy, who spends his days impersonating a Sister of Mercy and speedballing.
That summery is on the back of the book, so I assumed that was the whole of the book. In fact, that is the plot for about 1/3rd of the book.
Because Goldy finds out Imabelle has a trunk full of gold ore and he wants it. Only it isn’t gold ore, it’s fools gold that Imabelle’s husband uses in a con.
And the money raising con men who want that gold ore will do anything to get it.
That development is what leads Jackson, and us, on a wild ride in the city. Getting caught in a shoot out on the docks, visiting the most dangerous street in the borough, running from the police, people frequently being stabbed, acid thrown in people’s faces, and a trip to the whorehouse. The con men are ruthless and evil, not letting anyone stop them on their quest.
It also puts Jackson in contact with Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, two tough police officers who rule Harlem with a fair but iron fist.
Can we just take a second to appreciate those names? Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Absolutely amazing. They’re a little absurd and apparently a whole detective series was built around the two characters. Shout out to Himes.
And then we get to the end of the novel. Jackson has dealt with some of the worst things a man can and still believes in good and in Imabelle’s love. Which is touching in a sad, naive way. And those who live basically have a happy ever after? Kinda?
Honestly, I was so entranced by Jackson’s performance, it’s taken me a minute to sort out how I felt about the actual story.
Obviously the work is a classic for a reason; the writing is superb and Himes strikes a perfect balance between surreal, outrageous, and social commentary. There’s sex, drugs, violence, death. But in a matter of fact way. There’s a lot of talk of God and being a good Christian.
Every simile, and there were a lot, added color and context to what could have been otherwise simple descriptions of the characters. And there were a couple of instances when Himes really went in on his descriptions, generally when talking about Harlem as a place, that were raw and beautiful.
But if I had just read it, I probably would have appreciated it but not super enjoyed it. Jackson did voices, and acted out the emotions perfectly. So I recommend readings this one, but I insist you listen to the audio recording. It’s a game changer. Then if you’re looking for another audio book, check out The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue.