Monday, February 7, 2011

Donald Goines and the Low Road

Make no mistake, Donald Goines' books aren't for kids. Yet his vividly-titled novels--Whoreson, Black Gangster, Swamp Man and White Man's Justice, Black Man's Grief, for example--are read by teens as much as by adults. The reason for this is partly in their "forbidden" subject matter of addiction, prostitution, and gangster life, and partly in their undeniable authenticity. Goines lived what he wrote.

Low Road: The Life and Legacy of Donald Goines is an attempt to put his accomplishments into the context of their specific times. Allen describes the Detroit in which Goines grew up, as well as the racial situation throughout the country. Goines, son of a successful middle-class black family, faked his way into the air force at fifteen, served in Korea and returned at seventeen a veteran and heroin addict. He tried careers as pimp and hustler, served time in prison and then, inspired by former pimp turned literary darling Iceberg Slim, decided to pursue writing.

It isn't until the penultimate chapter, "Prodigal Son," that Allen goes in depth about Goines' work, connecting characters and situations among the books, and with Goines' own life. Here he presents an analysis of what Goines tried to accomplish, his motivations and why he connected with readers. The first Goines novel I read, Swamp Man, turns out to be an anomaly, set in Mississippi and dealing with a brother's revenge for his sister's degradation at the hands of repulsive rednecks. The rest of Goines' output is urban and concerned mainly with survival, although a little vengeance gets had as well.

Oddly Allen, also a Detroit native like his subject, seems unable to fully accept that Goines, untrained and unschooled, could have simply imagined the stories, going into great depths to find real-life sources and qualifying observations with statements like, "[Goines] might not have intended it, but the symbolism in the story is conspicuous." Or, "Whether Donnie did it consciously or without thought, he gave several different characters in his books identical names." This skepticism seems strange in a book about a man who, we assume, fascinated Allen enough to write about him. In the epilogue, Allen explains his own connection to Goines, his attempts to solve the writer's 1974 murder (no one was ever arrested or charged), and thoughts on Goines' legacy from academics.

There is, ultimately, a lot of Allen in the book. Whether this detracts from the reading experience is something for each reader to decide. It didn't bother me; it was like having a tour guide, and given the areas that the book explores, it was handy to have someone along who knew the territory. Ultimately Low Road gives as much insight into Goines as we're likely to get at this late date, and if the man remains an enigma to the reader, it's probably because he was one to himself as well.

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