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Locating Goines Pt. 1: “Next to the Hood”


“In the early days, the best rappers weren’t necessarily from the hood. Run-D.M.C was from Hollis. Eric B and Rakim were from Long Island. They lived next to the hood.”-Chris Rock, Time Magazine (57).

For those familiar with this blog, this quote swiped from Chris Rock comes up a lot. Namely because it’s good, smart, and catchy, but also because it touches on issues of “authenticity” and “reality” and all the stuff at the core of nearly every hip-hop discussion, for better and worse.

Rock’s quip though, has legs beyond hip-hop because he’s speaking on a phenomenon that applies to nearly every, interesting, game-changing, creative type. This sense that they stand inside and outside of their respective surroundings and as a result, inject their art with duel insight–familiar and foreign, sympathetic and critical.

Donald Goines is a “next to the hood” author and what makes his work so fascinating. A Goines novel is far from celebratory, it’s not entrenched in the moronic logic of “the life”–the biggest problem with most contemporary Urban fiction–but it isn’t above it all either. Goines has an impressive ability to be both, rooted in the realities of whatever experience he’s documenting and step outside of it and provide sober commentary on it, without tipping the scales towards “jus’ keepin’ it real” or projecting some above-it-all morality to the proceedings.

He isn’t telling first-person, ghetto fables like Iceberg Slim. He’s not making street life literary like Chester Himes. And the black underworld isn’t a transgressive symbol as it was for Claude McKay in Home to Harlem (arguably the earliest blueprint for Street/Urban Fiction), Goines is doing a little bit of all those things–those three authors made Goines’ work possible, though he only read Slim–and something else entirely.

Goines’ work isn’t explicitly literary at all–even Slim’s work is in part, about wordplay and language–and it’s “merit”, as more than just a good story, only arrives to those sensitive to the subtleties of the work. The very reason he’s very popular is why people don’t take his work seriously. You can read it, get your thrills, and close the book, but there’s more there too…but there doesn’t have to be. There’s nothing to “get”.

You don’t read a Goines novel for the themes because they’re kinda obvious, but you do read it for all the characters and asides and details that make that rather obvious theme palpable and new. This is why it’s very easy to toss out backhanded compliments to his novels. You’ll frame it around surprise–that it’s as insightful as it is, that it’s so well-structured, etc.–rather than simple, glowing acclaim. This though, is the unfortunate byproduct of being “next to the hood”. Rap is decades old and still essentially confounding to most people due to a stance that often hovers between unwitting and cognizant. Hell, last week, Vampire Weekend were at the center of an extensive debate amongst music critics precisely because they’re “next to the hood”.

If it isn’t Goines’ rather complex approach to his characters and environment that makes his work so rarefied, it’s the Goines legend that paints him as very much of the hood. As a guy killed at his typewriter (he actually was not at his typewriter when he was killed), who lived a life of crime and addiction and for a few years before his death, who spit out some really influential, autobiographical crime fiction. This legend, which helps sell his books and justifies critics’ disinterest, ignores his black, middle class upbringing. An upbringing that he rejected very early on by running with the wrong crowd, and an upbringing he escaped when he decided to fake his birth certificate and join the Air Force at just fifteen.

Eddie Allen, Goines’ biographer—do check out Allen’s book Low Road–offers an interesting piece of psychology on Goines’ air force decision: “As [Goines] grew older, his cravings for new experiences and adventures exceeded that which his peers in the gang could provide” (33). This analysis by Allen retains the Goines legend—as somebody of “the hood”–but also as someone beyond it, interested in something else. Robbing and stealing and pimping grew old for Donald pretty quickly and he looked beyond his immediate surroundings for escape. Though he’d return—with a heroin habit he picked up in Korea—the weird, meandering narrative of Goines’ life is worth charting out, especially as it applies to his fiction.

Here’s a guy who rejected his middle class upbringing for a life of crime, then joined the Air Force when crime got boring, who returned to the states an “adult” kinda spoiled by his weird decisions (making regular jobs an impossibility), who’d wander around in the underworld up to his death, writing remarkable books about that life for a few years until he was mysteriously killed in his home. Though that isn’t exactly “bohemian”, a word we love to append to slept-on, underappreciated, and self-destructive artists, it kind of is too–and it’s “next to the hood” for sure.

Next Up: Locating Goines Pt. 2: Literary Traditions. A little behind on these posts, my apologies-b

-Allen Jr, Eddie B. Low Road: The Life & Legacy of Donald Goines. St Martin’s Press: New York, 2004.
-Tyrangiel, Josh. “Why You Can’t Ignore Kanye.” Time. 29 Aug. 2005: 54-61.

Written by Brandon

February 1st, 2010 at 4:11 am

2 Responses to 'Locating Goines Pt. 1: “Next to the Hood”'

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  1. you may have read it before, but borges's essay "the argentine writer and the tradition" has a pretty brilliant take on the whole inside/outside thing, and is probably at least somewhat relevant to things like rap music and goines novels in a roundabout way.


    1 Feb 10 at 6:50 am

  2. Thanks for suggesting that Eddie Allen book. I've read quite a few Goines books but never was able to find much info about him. I read Donald Writes No More but that didn't help much.


    1 Feb 10 at 2:51 pm

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