My latest work, Viper's Dream, is a crime novel set in the jazz world of Harlem between 1936 and 1961. The inspiration for the novel was twofold: my life-long love of jazz; and my discovery, rather late in life, of the novels of Chester Himes.
Growing up in New York City in the 1970s, I revered mid-century African American authors like Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison. Nobody told me that one of their contemporaries, Chester Himes, was a major writer. While I heard adults talk about the crime movie Cotton Comes to Harlem, I never heard much about the book or its author.
Only after I arrived in Paris in 1993, did I meet readers, American and French, black and white, who raved about Chester Himes and expressed astonishment that I, a published author, had never read him.
Reading Himes's first novel, If He Hollers, Let Him Go, was a staggering experience. First published in 1945, it was pigeonholed as "protest" literature, an earnest plea for Negro rights, rather than being recognized as the devastatingly smart satire it was. Himes had continued to toil, prolifically if obscurely, through several more novels written in his exquisitely sardonic voice.
Like Baldwin and Wright, Himes lived for a time in Paris, as part of the growing post-war African American expatriate community. It was thanks to an offer from the French translator of If He Hollers, Let Him Go, Marcel Duhamel, that Himes turned to the crime genre. Duhamel was also the director of the Série Noire imprint, which specialized in crime novels or, as the French called them, policiers. "Write like you did in the novel I translated," Duhamel told Himes. "Short, terse sentences. All action."
Himes would go on to write nine crime novels set in Harlem and featuring the black police detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Himes's Harlem Cycle constitutes an epic achievement in crime writing and, to my mind, in American literature as a whole.
Starting with James Sallis's superb biography Chester Himes: A Life in 2000, this most egregiously overlooked of American authors began to be appreciated in his native country. But he remains better known in France and the rest of Europe.
Why the lack of recognition in the USA? Chester Himes (1909-1984) was not a particularly nice man. His life was punctuated by horrific tragedies, bizarre misadventures and an eight-year stay in the Ohio State Penitentiary for armed robbery. Much of the time, he was ornery and broke; often drunk and anything but "woke".
But he was a writer down to his marrow. In the second volume of his autobiography, My Life of Absurdity, he wrote about the creation of the Harlem Cycle: "The only time I was happy was while writing these strange, violent, unreal stories."
When I set out to write Viper's Dream, I knew better than to attempt to replicate Himes's gripping phantasmagoria of hoodlums and hustlers. In my novel, the history of Harlem is intertwined with the history of jazz. My protagonist, Clyde Morton, arrives from Alabama in 1936, dreaming of becoming a great trumpet player, the next Louis Armstrong. At Clyde's first audition, the bass player Pork Chop Bradley breaks the news: the young man has no talent whatsoever.
Clyde is devastated. Pork Chop, in an effort to console him, introduces Clyde to Mary Warner, one of the many code names for marijuana. At the time, grass was not well-known in mainstream America. But it was a precious secret among jazz musicians, who called heavy pot smokers "vipers," because of that hissing sound one makes when sucking on a joint: Ssssssss...
Clyde Morton becomes known as the Viper, the biggest dealer of marijuana to jazz musicians in Harlem. But in the 1940s, with the jazz revolution known as bebop, a new drug appears on the scene: heroin. To Clyde Morton, heroin is killing jazz by taking the lives of its greatest artists, like Charlie Parker. Viper Morton refuses to deal heroin. And he will kill anyone in his sphere who tries to sell junk.
I've always felt that Viper's Dream has a "Once Upon a Time in Harlem" feel about it. It's a mash-up of history, mythology and imagination. It's fiction, not documentary. In his autobiography, Chester Himes stresses in italics an important point about fiction versus reality: "The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real..."
Viper's Dream by Jake Lamar (Published by No Exit Press) Out Now.
A hard-boiled crime novel set in the jazz world of Harlem between 1936 and 1961, Viper's Dream combines elements of the epic Godfather films and the detective novels of Chester Himes to tell the story of one of the most respected and feared Black gangsters in America. At the centre of Viper's Dream is a turbulent love story. And the climax bears an element of Greek tragedy. For the better part of 20 years, Clyde 'The Viper' Morton has been in love with Yolanda 'Yo-Yo' DeVray, a singer of immense talent but a woman consumed by demons. By turns ambitious and self-destructive, conniving and naive, Yo-Yo is a classic femme fatale. She is a bright star in a constellation of compelling characters including the chauffeur-turned-gangster Peewee Robinson, the Jewish kingpin Abraham 'Mr. O' Orlinsky, the heroin dealer West Indian Charlie, the corrupt cop Red Carney, the wife-beating singer Pretty Paul Baxter, the pimp Buttercup Jones and the brutal enforcer Randall Country Johnson.
More information about Jake Lamar and his work can be found on his website. He can also be found on Twitter @jakelamar
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