Donald Goines and the Birth of Black Pulp Fiction

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Donald Joseph Goines was born on December 15, 1936, in Chicago. Father Joseph and mother Myrtle were hardworking migrants from the South who had managed to open up their own cleaning store. Around 1940 the family, which included older sister Marie, relocated to Detroit and resumed the cleaning business. It was in the Motor City that, ac­cording to biographer Eddie B. Allen Jr., Goines started down a dark path.

Donald Joseph Goines was born on December 15, 1936, in Chicago. Father Joseph and mother Myrtle were hardworking migrants from the South who had managed to open up their own cleaning store. Around 1940 the family, which included older sister Marie, relocated to Detroit and resumed the cleaning business. It was in the Motor City that, ac­cording to biographer Eddie B. Allen Jr., Goines started down a dark path. Unlike Iceberg Slim, who in Pimp and elsewhere blamed his mother’s de­cision to leave his surrogate father for his descent into delinquency, Goines fell in with the wrong crowd “in spite of the Catholic school education, the respectable mother and father, and the stability that came with being the heir to a family business.” Restless, unruly, yet in­credibly sharp, a fifteen-year-old Goines forged a fake birth certificate, adding two years to his actual age, and enlisted in the  US Air Force. The country was in the thick of the Korean War.

Though Goines had a relatively short tour, during which he saw no combat, his time in Asia (between Korea and Japan) would forever change his life. He experimented with drugs, developed a penchant for prostitutes, and became hooked on heroin—all while serving as a military police officer. This itinerary of vice was hardly exceptional for the off-base life of a US serviceman. But Goines was in his mid-teens: still a boy in age, he was exposed to things that hardened him into a man. He returned to Detroit after being honorably discharged at war’s end, in 1956. It did not end up  a happy homecoming.  “Smack  would be his companion for life,” and in order to get his fix, Goines resorted to all manner of criminal activity. He spent the next decade and a half in and out of jail, serving time for charges ranging from bootlegging to attempted larceny. Allen states that had Goines not been locked up during the Detroit riots of 1967, he would have been busy identifying “opportunities to make some personal gain.”

It was in 1969, during a stint in Michigan’s Jackson State Prison, that Goines encountered something that would change his life: Iceberg Slim’s fiction. Goines could relate to Pimp and Trick Baby on a level that was alien to the typical Holloway House reader. He had lived those ex­periences and, indeed, was still very much a part of the underworld fraternity about which Slim had written so powerfully in his first two books. This point of identification was important for what would happen next. If black sleaze consisted of race-exploitative tales spun out of whole cloth by just about anyone, black pulp fiction would be the genu­ine article—stories by black people, for black people, specifically about the black urban experience. According to Allen, Goines recognized that “what Beck was doing … was a new kind  of hustle. He’d been in the life, made it out of the joint. Now he was simply telling about it.” Goines wanted in on the game, so he submitted a book manuscript to Holloway House and was offered a contract shortly thereafter.

***

Goines had been out of prison for about a year when his first novel, Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie, appeared in December 1971. The publication of this book would be a turning point in Holloway House’s history. Up to this point, Morriss and Weinstock’s communications cir­cuit presumed a white sleaze readership from whom it could draw the necessary talent to produce most of its fare. That circuit was completely amenable to black sleaze (by the likes of Slim and Robert deCoy), which, in addressing itself to white men, leveraged urban black mascu­linity to contain the threat of domestic white femininity. Goines was different: he was not Holloway House’s presumed reader, as he could relate to Pimp from the “inside,” so to speak. By taking a chance on his writing, Morriss and Weinstock opened the door to a new pool of creative talent, one that emerged out of an urban black readership. This was still cultural appropriation, no doubt, but in this circuit, the white reader faded into the background.

Dopefiend’s very first chapter marks it as distinct from sleaze. The reader is immersed in a space of appalling filth and  degradation: the flat of a Detroit dope dealer who lets his strung-out customers use his pad as a “shooting gallery.” “The floor of the apartment,” Goines writes, “had pools of blood on it, from where addicts had tried to get a hit, but the works had stopped up, and  they had pulled the  needle out, leaving a flowing trail of blood that dropped down from  their arms or necks  and settled on the floor.” In this description of setting, Goines does much to suggest the characterological desperation that has produced such filth. Sure enough, the reader finds Jean, a local  junkie,  hiking up her skirt trying to find a vein that will still be able  to  take a  nee­dle. She plunges one into her groin area and hits a “small abcess [sic],” out of which “a stream of blood, mixed with pus,” begins to pour. But Goines, amazingly, is far from done. This entire disgusting milieu finds its perfect complement in the pusher himself: a portly pervert named Porky who has a penchant for watching addicts  suffer. When  women in particular find themselves short of money, his “fiendish mind” de­ vises “abnormal acts for them to entertain him with.” Porky begins touching himself as he fantasizes about the time he forced Jean to have sex with one of his “large German police dogs.” His right-hand woman Smokey, a strung-out addict herself and “one of the dirtiest-hearted black bitches alive,” completes the job as everyone else looks on. This all happens in a matter of seven and a half pages: Gaines’s chapter 1.

With milieu established, Dopefiend spins out the tale a young couple, Teddy and Terry, as they descend into Porky’s realm of depravity. At the outset Teddy is already addicted to heroin. For him Terry is but a means to get in Porky’s good graces. Teddy lives with  his hardwork­ing mother and sister-both single moms trying to keep their family afloat. Terry, on the other hand, comes from a solidly  middle-class black family, mirroring Gaines’s own background. The Wilsons live in an integrated neighborhood, where “her father kept the lawn beautiful, and her mother kept the inside of the house immaculate.” It is thus Terry’s precipitous fall that propels much of the narrative. Early in her addiction, she thinks to herself, “She wasn’t a dopefiend, she was far too strong for that.” However, as the addiction grows stronger, Terry resorts to increasingly desperate measures to pay for her habit. She steals money from her parents and clothes from the department store at which she works. Then, with fellow junkie Minnie, she defrauds the store-an actfor which she is caught and fired. Finally, with Minnie’s encouragement, she turns to prostituting, each trick giving her just enough money to pay for the next hit. Her young life has morphed into the slipperiest of slopes: “Well, I’ve come this far,” Terry thinks before sleeping with her first client, “so there’s no turning back now.”

By that point, Terry has cut out Teddy from her life. The precise mo­ment of their break comes when Teddy fails to get an erection after shooting up and forcing himself on Terry. “To cover his shame at not being able to function as a young man should,” Goines writes, “he ex­ploded in a blind rage.” His sex drive replaced with a junk drive, Teddy can only muster the energy to rob, steal, and hustle the money he needs to pay for his next hit. His symbolic emasculation comes full circle when he steals his sister’s welfare check, gets thrown in jail for trying to cash it, and has to be rescued by his mother (who asks her  daughter to drop the charges). By the time Porky’s henchmen shoot him dead for trying to double-cross him, Teddy is, in a sense, already gone.

Terry’s fate is less certain but far more disturbing. Toward the end, in a fit of desperation, a pregnant Minnie submits to one of Porky’s perverse shows. Reviving his memory of Jean’s submission, Porky has her perform fellatio on his German  shepherd.  Minnie gets her fix, but at what cost? She hangs herself in her room. Goines seems to spare the reader the grisliest details of that act until Terry discovers the body:

“The sight of Minnie hanging there was shocking enough, but when her eyes turned downward, away from the sight of her friend’s contorted face, they fell on what looked to be a child’s head protruding from between Minnie’s naked legs. The head of the baby was covered with afterbirth, while only part of its body showed. The rest was still hung up somewhere inside the dead woman’s body.”

As if this doubled “hanging” were not horrifying enough, Goines has Terry fall on the ground—”her hands sliding through the waste that had escaped from Minnie’s body”—gratuitously adding texture to that horror. The shock of this scene, we are led to believe, makes Terry go mad, and she is committed to a hospital. When the Wilsons visit their daughter over three months later, she is diagnosed with “chronic frustrational anxiety due to the traumatic experience of finding her friend dead” and apparently “feeling … deep emotional guilt” over it.

Pimp had a handful of graphic episodes. Mama Black Widow was an exercise in black abjection. But nothing Slim ever wrote could approach the coldness and cruelty with which Goines approached this particular scene. That Minnie’s violation was to a large extent foreshadowed by what had happened to Jean underscored just how total Gaines’s vision of depravity was. The reader was set up to fall right alongside Terry.

***

How was this not black sleaze? Goines was obviously in the business of writing sensational, even exploitative, literary fare. Yet Dopefiend did not fit with anything else Holloway House had published before. Slim’s use of the first-person voice and the device of the frame narrative en­sured that white readers could consume the black underworld from a safe distance. He wrote from the perspective of the outside looking in. Goines, by contrast, immersed the reader in his fictionalized ghetto, leaving little to no room for imaginative escape. His style was indiffer­ent to the outsider’s gaze; it simply sought to make the reader feel with the characters themselves.

Gaines’s aesthetic “sensationalism” was, in Hoggart’s terms, “bla­tantly and crudely real.” For Haggart, the most striking “sex-and­ violence novels” were those whose “almost subterranean appearance” came from “an unconscious desire among many readers for a sensa­tionalism less artificial than that found in the more widely and pub­licly disseminated productions.” In this sense, the most viscerally af­fecting pulp was to be distinguished from “the artificiality of so much mass-sensationalism .” The former, like Dopefiend, honed the reader’s response to a degree that only invited the initiated; the  latter, like a lot of pinup magazines and sleaze paperbacks, played with conventions with a wink and a nudge. There was an element of mass appeal even in Iceberg Slim that Goines simply removed from his own writing.

Dopefiend, cannily enough, thematizes the difference between what its author sought to write and what was already available in the literary marketplace. In the  opening scene, we are introduced to Porky sitting in a “huge armchair.” Master of his domain, the  “black and horribly fat man” seems as though he is in a den or some space designated for masculine repose. Porky could be, just for this fleeting moment, one of the dads who would have opened up a copy of Adam or Knight in the privacy of such a space. The narrator then observes, “He set aside the book he had been glancing through, laying it down in  such a way that he could glance at the large technicolor pictures of a horse and woman faking an act of copulation .” The shock of this statement is twofold: first, that this is the kind of sleaze Porky would be looking at, and, second, that the narrator would bother to indicate that the figures in the pictures are “faking” it. Why is this fact relevant to the disgust we feel by the pictures themselves? Because, as we learn only two pages later, Porky has realized the act—of not just play-acting interspecies “copula­tion” but bringing bestiality to life. Such is Goines’s task: if sleaze can only gesture to depravity, he would animate the thing itself.

The final chapter of the novel harks back to this reflexive  mo­ment. With Teddy dead and Terry gone mad, we find Porky back in  his lair, looking out over the street in summer. Muttering about the heat, Goines notes that Porky is “not really speaking to anyone in the room.” Except he is speaking to the reader. Porky’s flat is just as full of “young addicts” as it was in the beginning, and his predatory instincts identify Ronald and Tess, two teenagers, as new targets. “It was a game of life that he played with all the junkies,” Goines writes, “only the cards were stacked against the junkies, and he was the  dealer.” And, like Porky, the reader knows exactly how this game will end for the likes of Ronald and Tess. This point, a meta-reflection on the nature of Goines’s narrative, makes the final two lines all the more devastating: “He didn’t use-no, of all his faults, that was one he didn’t have. Porky was not a dope fiend.” By citing the title of his book as the last word in the book, Goines creates a kind of self-consuming artifact, a book of horrors whose true author is the pusher himself. In place of the bestial­ity paperback he has given us Dopefiend.

In one of the earliest pieces to try to bring Goines’s underground reputation to light, Michael Covino, in 1987, described his style as hav­ing been “written from ground zero.” By this he meant that Goines’s prose was “the voice of the ghetto itself,” and that his novels consti­tuted “a fiction about people who largely don’t read, written in their language.” In one of the earliest academic pieces on Goines, Greg Goode, in 1984, found that Goines’s books were “poorly written for the most part,” and that his “descriptions, transitions, plots, and narrative voice [were] sandpaper rough.” In reprints of Goines’s paperbacks, Hol­loway House attributed the following to Goode from the same essay: “Almost single-handedly, Goines established the conventions and pop­ular momentum for a new fiction genre, which could be called ghetto realism.” The first two quotations overlook the artfulness of Goines’s crude writing: for Covino the prose is naturalized as para-literate street talk, while for Goode it is subliterary in a very clumsy way. The third quotation dovetails with the argument of this section. It names a mode of writing, “ghetto realism,” that, rather than appeal to an outsider’s view of the black underworld, enacts an insider’s sensation of heroin­ fueled despair. Ghetto realism evokes Gaines’s effort to write the thing itself.

The irony is that the third quotation is made up. Kermit E. Camp­ bell has shown that this line was tacked on to a lightly edited sentence from Goode’s essay to make it seem like he had written it. But it is nowhere to be found in the original publication. Gaines’s style may have stripped the veneer of romanticization off depictions of the black underworld, but that did not mean Holloway House would give up playing its tricks. When it came to marketing, the game was always one of masquerade.

***

When Holloway House brought out Whoreson: The Story of a Ghetto Pimp in February 1972, the book’s design immediately signaled that Goines would be packaged differently from every author who had come before him. The difference lay in sameness: that  is,  the  covers were laid out in identical fashion to Dopefiend’s. On the front, title and subtitle were displayed in big block letters, underneath which appeared the author’s name and a small icon representing the  book’s contents (in the case of Whoreson, a prostitute). On the back, a synopsis of the book’s contents sat above the striking image of Goines himself-an il­lustration based on a photograph of the author. Visually, the design framed Dopefiend and Whoreson as two parts of a set. Not a serial (that would come later), but books of the same ilk. From very early on, then, Gaines’s legibility as an author was not dependent (as Slim’s had been) on a splashy new illustration for each of his books. All it required was recognition that the black background of his covers—unique in Hol­loway House’s catalog-indicated a fresh perspective on urban black masculinity.

 

[via CrimeReads]

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