The Buick Roadmaster: Motion, Agency, and Defeat in “If He Hollers Let Him Go”
By Nathan JeffersonOctober 5, 2016
And yet If He Hollers is a novel firmly located in the same Los Angeles noir tradition as The Big Sleep and Devil in a Blue Dress. Himes takes the familiar mechanics of these novels — drinking, driving from one end of Los Angeles to another in search of answers, a life under constant threats of danger — and filters them through the lens of a black man lacking any agency and control over his own life, producing something darker and more oppressive than the traditional pulp detective’s story. The result is striking for the unrelenting bitterness and harshness present in his narrators’ every thought — the detective’s wry coolness is replaced by punishing waves of paranoia and despair that let up only to return again multiplied several times over.
Born in Cleveland to two teachers, Chester Himes had one of the fascinatingly varied backgrounds seemingly required for early 20th-century writers. Expelled from Ohio State for taking students to a speakeasy/brothel, he later served seven years in prison for his role in a jewel theft. While imprisoned, he began to write, eventually publishing several short stories in Esquire. After his release, he moved to Los Angeles and held 23 jobs in the three years he spent there — one of them was a screenwriting gig for Warner Brothers. Himes later said that “under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate,” and the fiction he wrote during this time reflects this attitude. He eventually became famous and financially comfortable thanks to the more conventional Harlem Detective novels he wrote as an expat in Paris, but his Los Angeles novels stand alone as singularly harsh examples of noir.
Himes well understood that the rhythms and motions of the detective novel are every bit as important as its plot. Indeed, it’s more accurate to say that motion drives plot; for the detective, locomotion matches and propels thought and reasoning. No one setting or state of consciousness has all the answers; it’s only through the continued movement from location to location that a full and complete image begins to emerge. It’s a tradition that has its roots in narrative ease — the first detective stories were serials, and a sequential, compartmentalized structure lends itself well to weekly installments — but soon became a cornerstone of the genre, even more so than first-person narration or femme fatales. As a natural consequence, driving became a core pastime of the modern detective, the sleuth behind the wheel a dominant image of film noir. Like these classic detectives, Robert Jones finds himself moving from one Los Angeles location to another throughout If He Hollers: the South Side, the West Side, the Shipyard, the Valley — a cross-section of neighborhoods hardscrabble and wealthy, white and black.
But Jones can’t move freely and easily, and his limitations reveal the soft lot of the hardboiled outsider white detective. One of the trademarks of the classic detective is his self-identification as a member of the lower rung of society. Near broke and constantly hustling, he’s far from a man of leisure, often defining himself in opposition to the corrupt rich people around him. Himes, by using a black shipbuilder in pre-integration United States, reveals that these tropes are only convincing when the picture is incomplete. Jones is under a constant oppressiveness far beyond anything a white detective ever dealt with. Fear and frustration permeate his every thought, conscious and not: If He Hollers begins with a series of dreams, each a short discrete instance of racial humiliation and each more humiliating than the last. As they recur throughout the novel, Jones’s dreams are filled with his anxieties and fears concerning the racism he faces in his everyday life.
The themes of fear, anxiety, and lack of control carry over to consciousness, where Jones is constantly constrained and subject to the whims of the whites around him. Jones drives a ’42 Buick Roadmaster thanks to his leaderman position, a perk that even many of “the rich white folks out in Beverly” can’t afford — but he can’t just drive in solitary peace. If He Hollers begins with Jones’s daily routine of picking up five black co-workers en route to the shipyard. The trip is tense and claustrophobic, with Jones unable to think amid the arguments of the other men. Hurrying so as to not be late, Jones runs into a situation emblematic in its oppressiveness: a white couple, caught in the street when the light turns, takes their sweet time when they see that the car waiting on them is full of black men. Jones’s reaction is of barely restrained rage: “goddamn ’em, I’ll grind ’em into the street, I thought. But just before I hit them something held me. I tamped the brake […] I sat there looking at the white couple until they had crossed the sidewalk, giving them stare for stare, hate for hate.”
It’s society in a single interaction: Jones can’t move. Just by virtue of their race, a white couple crossing can exert complete control over his day, and the fact that both parties are acutely aware of the situation makes it all the more painful. It’s even worse because in Los Angeles, driving is more than just driving. It should be your birthright as a citizen, a daily ode to individuality, motion, modernity, and open space. Why else would the car factor so prominently into the mythos of the detective? Cutting off this avenue for self-expression and agency is an especially significant betrayal for a population that migrated to the city in search of just those very things.
After this, the rest of the trip becomes a power struggle, with every driver who cuts Jones off becoming another weight on his shoulders. “If I’d been a white boy,” he says, “I might have enjoyed the scramble in the early morning sun […] but to me it was racial […] all I wanted in the world was to push my Buick Roadmaster over some peckerwood’s face.” The hyperawareness of place, space, and setting required to navigate his daily life means that Jones is every bit as perceptive and analytical as the pulp detective. But Himes depicts this way of life as exhausting and nearly crippling in its obsessiveness, a far cry from the cool detachment of the private detective. Unlike the detective, Jones can be defeated, and his innate understanding of this fact creates a miasma of fear that hangs over the entire book.
Like most of our pulp heroes, Robert Jones moves from page to page, from street to street, in a quest for answers. But Jones isn’t looking for a murderer — the answers he needs are far more elusive; they amount to no less than a solution to American racism. I don’t mean he wants to abolish discriminatory laws and bring equality to the country; Jones wants to figure out how he can live in a country that doesn’t regard him as human. Marlowe may have traveled toward danger and clashed with murderers, but Jones, already fully immersed in a world fraught with danger, is looking for a way to move in the opposite direction.
Embodying one option for black existence is Alice Harrison, Jones’s on-again-off-again girlfriend. The daughter of a prominent black doctor, she’s well-educated and able to pass for white when she so desires. With any number of equally upper-class men at her disposal, she’s nevertheless in love with Jones (the circumstances of their meeting are never explained). Alice and her family, black professionals up against the glass ceiling of American racism, represent a distinct way out for Jones. Mrs. Harrison’s shocked response when Jones “needles her” about the need to “get even with the white folks” sums up the family philosophy: “You’ll never make a success with that attitude. You mustn’t think in terms of trying to get even with them […] We’ve got to show them that we’re good enough, we’ve got to prove it to them.” It’s a philosophy that puts the onus for work and change on the oppressed, allowing the Harrisons to take the moral high ground and believe that their work (and suffering) has purpose and meaning. Jones, armed with a wealth of experience that tells him white people will restrict blacks whenever they see fit, is skeptical, and indeed, the Harrisons’ attempts at movement even within this limited scope show the flaws inherent in this approach.
When Jones and Alice are treated poorly at a high-class restaurant and then warned not to return, the physical strain of maintaining her composure makes “nerve tension [pick] at her face […] it was an effort to walk slowly; she pulled at me as if she wanted to run.” It shouldn’t be any surprise that upon leaving, Alice gets behind the wheel of Jones’s car and begins “tipping off her lid: seventy, eighty, back to seventy for a bend, up to ninety again. I thought she was trying to get up nerve to kill us both and I didn’t give a damn if she did.” One of the cruelest ironies of life for Himes’s characters is that the devices and institutions meant to bring about a newfound freedom are used only to demonstrate the limitations imposed upon them. The Harrisons’ attempts to self-regulate and avoid conflict make it all the more degrading when it finds them anyway. Jones sees this and understands that the answers he’s looking for aren’t to be found with Alice’s kind.
While the Harrisons live lives predicated on allegiance to self-prescribed borders and limits, violence, the other obvious path available to Jones, offers agency in its most primal form. A criminal path means swinging in the other direction; freedom through disregard for any and all societal limits. It’s a dangerous life, but one that can bring freedom in its total disregard for all forms of authority, legitimate or not. Midway through If He Hollers, a fight over a game of cards at the shipyard leaves Jones knocked out by a sucker punch from “a tall young blond guy” with “blue eyes […] blistered with hate,” and in response, he decides to “murder him cold-bloodedly, without giving him a chance.” Far from a hotheaded, impulsive reaction, it’s a decision made with thought and deliberation. If Jones can’t have the freedom others enjoy, he can at least make someone “feel as scared and powerless and unprotected as I felt every goddamned morning I woke up.”
Making this decision frees him. Once his mind is set, he gains a clarity and purposefulness that he’s previously lacked. Just knowing he has a choice and a path is liberating — upon making up his mind, his car immediately becomes the easy throne promised to all Angelenos. Free and easy, it becomes “a pleasure just sitting there, my fingers resting lightly on the steering wheel, just idling along.” The time immediately after his decision is maybe the easiest and most joyful section of the book, with a Jones lighthearted and full of the “warm glow” that comes from having a purpose. It’s no coincidence that the moment where his life most resembles the private detective’s is the novel’s lightest, with Jones’s sense of humor shining through and finding joy in danger. Because it is still danger — just driving up to a white man’s house is an invitation to violence — but it’s danger on Jones’s terms. The choosing makes all the difference.
But in the end, even this agency is taken away from him. In keeping with the theme of the book, a third path is chosen for him; wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, he is forced by a judge to join the army as part of a deal to avoid prosecution. If He Hollers’s final image is of Jones being escorted to an enlistment office, soon to be placed overseas to fight for ideals of freedom and liberty. It’s an ultimate loss of control all the more dispiriting for the irony of the whole situation. Throughout the book, losing his draft deferment is one of Jones’s biggest worries. It would mean a way out of his current situation, but one that exposes him to a new and less navigable set of dangers. Enlistment means a final failure of Jones’s mission to find a path in Los Angeles; his freedom and sense of self replaced by forced allegiance and movements subject to a superior’s command.
Raymond Chandler once wrote that he saw Marlowe “always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated,” a melancholy yet romantic image central to the idea of the classic noir detective. In contrast, Chester Himes’s L.A. protagonists are stuck in unsafe places, looking for answers but ground up by the constant attacks upon them by a nation that refuses to treat them as human beings. Everywhere they find their agency removed and movements hemmed, rendering them unable to even begin to look for solutions to their predicaments. The great paradox of the pulp detective is that in novels predicated on men in danger and chaos they will somehow remain above it all, rarely destroyed and never degraded. If He Hollers Let Him Go shows that absent the freedom the pulp detective takes for granted, defeat is the only eventual outcome.
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