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Posts Tagged ‘Chester Himes’

Work Frustrations; Social Climbing

November 11, 2011 | by

Okay, I have a question about the ideal sort of job for a young writer. If not ideal, then certainly better. I am a gallery manager in Manhattan. It is an exhausting, constantly detail-oriented job that does not pay especially well. Work frustrations and a first novel that is still in progress but progressing despite the less than ideal amount of time I can devote. I am wondering whether I should quit this “career” and become a bartender. I would have more hours to write, and my hands wouldn’t be typing for eleven to twelve hours a day. So what jobs do you recommend?

You mention bartending. I’ve known several writer-bartenders over the years. The job, they tell me, comes with perils of its own. In the good old days, the easiest thing was to get a gig proofreading at night for some giant consultancy or law firm (like the title character of Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica). The pay was good, and when you punched out, you punched out. Those jobs are hard to find now (proofreading’s the first thing to go), but since you’re in New York, it’s worth signing up with a temp agency. I temped once, for a business-to-business advertising firm, and on my very first afternoon found myself writing slogans for a revolutionary new water-efficient toilet. At least, I tried. (It was also my last afternoon.)

I have always thought dog walking would be a good job for a writer, if you’re the sort of person who thinks while you walk. But perhaps one of our readers will have a better suggestion ... or a position to fill?

I’m enjoying The Way of All Flesh. Can you suggest some novels about social climbing by cultural or racial outsiders?

If Ernest Pontifex counts as a cultural outsider—or a social climber—then who among us is safe from either charge? Not Becky Sharpe, in Vanity Fair, or Lucien de Rubempré, in Lost Illusions. And certainly not Georges Duroy, the gutter-bred antihero of Bel Ami, or David Copperfield or Gatsby or Tim Ripley or—to choose a more recent example—slick Nick Guest in The Line of Beauty. But neither, I suppose, is Lucy, the title character of Jamaica Kincaid’s first novel, an Antiguan making her way in New York, or Pronek, the immigrant hero of Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man, lost in Chicago. After all, if you’re not from around here, there is a fine line between climbing and getting by. (Is Ellison’s Invisible Man a climber?) Leonard Bast tries to better himself, disastrously enough, in Howard’s End, and who can blame him? Creepy Jasper Milvain does a much better job in New Grub Street. The black shipbuilder Bob Jones doesn’t climb, exactly—but he gets promoted, and all hell breaks loose among his white coworkers, whom he secretly loathes—in Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go. There is always, of course, Augie March, taking goyish America by storm. And—my own favorite—the reckless, charming Irish hero of Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, cutting a swathe through Disraeli-era London. Speaking of outsiders who make it. Read More »

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Ishmael Reed on ‘Juice!’

September 13, 2011 | by

Ishmael Reed © Terence Byrnes.

Seventy-three-year-old Ishmael Reed has been a major figure in American letters for more than four decades. In April, Dalkey Archive published Juice!, Reed’s first novel in more than fifteen years. Juice! tells the story of a struggling African American cartoonist whose personal and professional life is disrupted by the media frenzy surrounding the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Earlier this summer, Reed, who is based in Oakland, California, responded to some of my questions about his latest work.

Juice! is your first novel since 1993. What inspired you to write another novel after all these years?

I began this one as soon as I heard about the murders. I was vacationing in Hawaii, and the murders ruined my vacation. The media went berserk over the murder of Nicole Simpson, the kind of ideal white woman—a Rhine maiden—one finds in Nazi art and propaganda, murdered allegedly by a black beast. It was a story that reached into the viscera of the American unconscious, recalling the old Confederate art of the black boogeyman as an incubus squatting on top of a sleeping, half-clad white woman. It was also an example of collective blame. All black men became O. J. The murders ignited a kind of hysteria.

Juice! does not have a conventional structure. The novel incorporates courtroom documents, television transcripts, and pieces of visual art. It also plays around quite a bit with time. What gave rise to the novel’s peculiar shape?

I try to experiment. Writing a conventional novel would be boring for me. In this novel, I added cartoons. Cartoons were probably my introduction to storytelling as a child, because on Sundays we got The Chattanooga Times, and I’d read the funnies. A publisher wanted to publish Juice! but decided that the cartoons weren’t up to par. So, at the age of seventy, I studied at the Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco, and the cartoons improved so much that I now do political cartoons for The San Francisco Chronicle’s blog, City Brights.Read More »

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