Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far bellow, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of the sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem.
The novel begins with Jackson, a poor black man who has sacrificed all his money to Hank, a man who claims to be able to turn ten-dollar bills into hundreds. Jackson is besotted by his girlfriend, Imabelle, and it is she that discovered Hank’s talents. Jackson gives everything he has to Hank, which comes to the total of $1500, hoping to turn it into $15,000. Everything goes horribly wrong, and he finds himself with no job, no money, and worst of all, no Imabelle. Jackson has become a criminal, wanted for various crimes he commits in order to find his beloved Imabelle. In a hilarious fashion, Himes races through scenes quickly that soon spiral out of control and poor Jackson is left to pick up the pieces.
Jackson is so likeable as a character, and I think it’s down to his innocence. When everything goes wrong in his attempt to change his money, it is Jackson that takes the blame and not Hank, the perpetrator, and so the reader feels sympathetic towards him; Jackson only wanted to give Imabelle the life he feels she deserves, and he needs money in order to treat her like a proper lady. He wanted to buy them a house and a car, to live a ‘normal’ life (I use the word ‘normal’ loosely).
The novel is almost split into two parallels; Jackson and his attempt to find Imabelle, and two black detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones who are trying to track down Jackson, who they believe has committed various crimes. The majority of the town is terrified of this duo, which seems to work in their favour.
Something I really loved about the novel was the portrayal of New York. Many see it as a glossy, glamorous, fabulous place to live with its fancy skyscrapers and fancy hotels and restaurants. But in reality, not everyone can afford this lifestyle. Himes demonstrates a paradoxical version filled with crime, poverty and danger.
Colored people passed along the dark sidewalks, slinking cautiously past the dark, dangerous doorways, heads bowed, every mother’s child of them looking as though they had trouble.
Colored folks and trouble, Jackson thought, like two mules hitched to the same wagon.
I was really surprised at how much I liked this novel.
Overall rating: 4/5