Since the Library of America has shown a laudable willingness to surprise with its choice of authors to induct into the Black Jacket Club — H.P. Lovecraft! Philip K. Dick! — I’ve been pondering other out-of-left-field writers to add to the LoA’s catalogue.
I say “out of left field” for lack of a better phrase: these writers have at least as much claim on our attention as William Dean Howells or Nathanael West, both of whom have gotten the LoA treatment. Feel free to chime in with your own suggestions, particularly disreputable ones. American literature is a scruffy place at its best, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Here are some initial nominations:
CHESTER HIMES (1909-1984) If the creators of Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op are entitled to membership in the Black Jacket Club, then the man who gave us Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones and the “Harlem Detective” series is overdue for the same recognition. A peer of James Baldwin and Richard Wright, Himes launched his career with dense, socially observant novels rooted in the exodus of African Americans to Los Angeles during the 1940s. Cast the First Stone (1952), based on his prison time, was ahead of its time in depicting a homosexual relationship. In 1957 Himes turned to hardboiled crime fiction with For Love of Imabelle (aka A Rage in Harlem), the first of nine novels featuring Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones — black NYPD detectives who went about their work with a combination of appalling brutality and macabre wit. Prime Himes could easily fill two volumes, starting with If He Hollers, Let Him Go and the other early novels, with another volume of crime fiction and short stories. Any collection should also include his incidental but valuable nonfiction, such as the analysis of the Zoot Suit Riots Himes wrote for the NAACP.
CHARLES PORTIS (1933) The cult writer’s cult writer. Yes, he’s still alive, but so’s Philip Roth, and he’s got a boatload of LoA volumes, so there you go. The success of Portis’ second novel, True Grit, and the subsequent film version (which bagged John Wayne his only Oscar) ensured that at least one of his books will always be in print, but hardcore Portisheads maintain that the man’s true career peak is Masters of Atlantis, a trip through America’s subculture of pseudoscience and weird religion that Thomas Pynchon would have been proud to have written. Portis is one of the great comic writers of all time: laconic, subtly witty, with a gift for giving his characters quirky and distinctive voices. Beneath the off-kilter dialogue and low-key comedy there’s a core of real toughness: the explosion of violence at the end of Gringos startles but does not feel unearned, and for all its rustic chuckles True Grit is about a mission of blood vengeance that ends up costing its heroine more than she realizes. Norwood, True Grit, Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis and Gringos would fit quite comfortably into one of those easy-to-hold volumes. The man is so infuriatingly unprolific that at this late date any collection is apt to be definitive. Alas.
ROBERT SILVERBERG (1935) After years of writing proficient hackwork science fiction (as well as dozens of softcore porn novels tossed off for the cash), Silverberg decided it was time to lift the SF genre out of the space opera ghetto by writing novels and short stories distinguished by conceptual daring and high literary ambition. He wasn’t the only one doing it, but his relentless productivity and astonishing consistency made him the standard bearer for SF authors aiming to produce work that could stand tall with the best mainstream writing. Thorns, Nightwings, Up the Line, Hawksbill Station, The Book of Skulls and Dying Inside would make a great first volume, covering the initial period when Silverberg was setting precedents and shattering them on a yearly basis. The later period, with its mix of fantasies and historical novels, could be covered in a separate volume, as could the short stories. An unappreciated American artist, overdue for serious consideration.
ICEBERG SLIM (1918-1992) Robert Beck’s novels of black street life in mid-twentieth century America, drawn from his decades as a pimp, hustler and convict, are as harsh and uncompromising as anything you’ll read, and the better gangsta rappers — notably Ice Cube and Ice-T — often cite him as an influence. The autobiography Pimp: The Story of My Life, Trick Baby, Mama Black Widow, Airtight Willie & Me and The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim are horrifying, pornographic and sometimes outrageously funny time capsules of gutter life in America.
WALTER TEVIS (1928-1984) I hate to use words like “iconic” but Tevis created two iconic figures right out of the box: Fast Eddie Felson, the pool shark hero of Tevis’ 1959 debut novel, The Hustler; and Thomas Jerome Newton, the tormented extraterrestrial visitor in Tevis’ second novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963). He also created Beth Harmon, the tranquilizer-addicted chess prodigy of The Queen’s Gambit (1983). The further adventures of Fast Eddie, chronicled in The Color of Money (1984), and the dystopian novel Mockingbird (1980) will round out a portrait of an American journeyman who ought to be better known.