Monday, January 24, 2011

Low Road: Donald Goines and urban tragedy

I discovered the novels of Donald Goines when I worked for a book distributor that sold collections to libraries. Often this meant orders for all the books by a particular author, as was the case with Goines, whose novels bore vivid titles like Whoreson, Black Gangster, Swamp Man and White Man's Justice, Black Man's Grief. Goines' first novel appeared in 1971, and he died in 1974 at age 37 after writing sixteen books, a meteoric career by any standards. And they're all still in print today.

Low Road: The Life and Legacy of Donald Goines is an attempt to put his life and accomplishments into the context of their specific times. Occasionally it seems like author Eddie B. Allen, Jr. is more interested in the context than the man, but ultimately his approach pays off. Allen describes the Detroit in which Goines grew up, as well as the racial situation throughout the country. Goines, son of a successful middle-class black family, faked his way into the air force at fifteen, served in Korea and returned at seventeen a veteran and heroin addict. He tried careers as pimp and hustler, served time in prison and then, inspired by former pimp turned literary darling Iceberg Slim, decided to pursue writing. He wrote what he knew, but he wrote with a blinding honesty and the kind of grit you can't fake. His street hustlers weren't glamorous or admirable, and even when they tried to do the right thing, they still had past sins that needed atonement. But it was more than a transcription of his own experience; these were stories, crafted and polished, by a man who too late discovered his true calling.

It isn't until the penultimate chapter, "Prodigal Son," that Allen goes in depth into Goines' work, connecting characters and situations among the books, and with Goines' own life. Here he presents an analysis of what Goines tried to accomplish, his motivations and why he connected with readers. The first Goines novel I read, Swamp Man, turns out to be an anomaly, set in Mississippi and dealing with a brother's revenge for his sister's degradation at the hands of repulsive rednecks. The rest of Goines' output is urban and concerned mainly with survival, although a little vengeance gets had as well.

Oddly Allen, also a Detroit native like his subject, seems unable to fully accept that Goines, untrained and unschooled, could have simply imagined the stories, going into great depths to find real-life sources and qualifying observations with statements like, "[Goines] might not have intended it, but the symbolism in the story is conspicuous." Or, "Whether Donnie did it consciously or without thought, he gave several different characters in his books identical names." This skepticism seems strange in a book about a man who, we assume, fascinated Allen enough to write about him.

(I think this is the profound lesson of Goines' work to other writers: the fact that you don't need formal training, no MFA or fancy residency in Iowa. You can simply decide be a writer. The technical skills will come with practice and help, but the core drive requires nothing but the desire to tell a story uniquely your own [and figuring out that part can be harder than it sounds]. Goines had that desire, which is why we still remember him.)

Still, Allen does a good job of presenting Goines' ouvre in detail, qualified or not. In the epilogue, he explains his own connection to Goines, his attempts to solve the writer's 1974 murder (no one was ever arrested or charged), and thoughts on Goines' legacy from academics.

There is, ultimately, a lot of Allen in the book. Whether this detracts from the reading experience is something for each reader to decide. It didn't bother me; it was like having a tour guide, and given the areas that the book explores, it was handy to have someone along who knew the territory. Ultimately Low Road gives as much insight into Goines as we're likely to get at this late date, and if the man remains an enigma to the reader, it's probably because he was one to himself as well.

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