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Locating Goines Pt. 4: Goines & Street Fiction


Though Goines’ desire to write stems solely from reading Iceberg Slim, and Goines’ and Slim’s names are now mentioned together as the founders of Street Fiction, their work is pretty different. Goines, following Slim, approached crime and the underworld with an unflinching reality that still holds-up in 2010 and combined it with a hard-to-explain, unconditional empathy for the characters. Unlike Chester Himes, who did similar things, the law and order element is all but gone in Slim and Goines’ work and that’s crucial.

But what Goines left behind, when he took up writing (with Slim in the front of his mind), was Slim’s wired subjectivity. Not so much Slim’s frequent use of the first person even though that’s part of it, but more, Slim’s off-the-wall jazzy, slang-filled, kinda impenetrable language. If not for Slim’s dirty old man tendencies (he can be just plain lurid), I don’t see why his work wouldn’t be the mid-point between African-American Literature in the the Harlem Renaissance era and the post-modern era. Slim’s a genius with words–Joycean really–and his stories are thick with slang, tangents, and asides that make him part of the writing-about-writing, joy-of-words, style of Modernism whether he knows it or not.

Goines, not so much. He’s direct and straight-forward, always. But what Goines saw in Slim’s work was a lot of things he’d also seen and experienced put–for the first time as far as Goines was concerned–into a book: Less sentimental, less “square” crime narratives rubbing up against a kinder approach to the criminals. And this made Donald Goines write. He even ended up at publisher Holloway House–the closest to white patronage guys like Slim or Goines could get in the late 60s–because they published Slim’s work.

Slim’s unrelenting bleakness, a worldview as dark and depressive as any more respectable Modernist must’ve also grabbed Goines. This too is why Goines is closer in spirit to McKay than DuBois–there’s no room for the kind of reformist idealism DuBois suggests in Home to Harlem or any of Goines’ novels. Moments of hope, the possibility of change, yes, but it’s kinda there, hovering around out of reach, just to further illustrate how fucked things are. Though institutions and institutionalized racism are a significant part of Goines’ work, there’s always more than a suggestion of free will and choice.

This lack of hope, coupled with a more conventional demand for personal accountability, is what made Goines’ work separate from the politicized literature of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, popular at the time. Despite the progressiveness, despite the radical pragmatism, the goal of Black Power in particular, had its roots in the same puritanical ideas of every organized American group. And that kind of hope and idealism just isn’t something Goines could hold onto.

Even in Goines’ books about the character Kenyatta, a Black Militant out to rid his city and the world of drugs, the character fails. Many like to read this as the ultimate indictment of American racism–that the country would not let change like that happen–but reading through the four books (Crime Partners, Death List, Kenyatta’s Escape, Kenyatta’s Last Hit), there’s enough milling around to suggest that Goines finds Kenyatta’s ideals more than a little bit absurd. That he had a kind of slanted, deeply suspicious take on everybody and everything–shades of Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice. Really, it only makes sense that Goines would not find his work aligned with the political literature of the 60s and 70s, but that doesn’t make it any less unfortunate.

Goines though, who rejected and was rejected by Civil Rights and Black Power artists, developed the next wave of African-American Literature: Street Fiction, now Urban Fiction. His disinterest in radicalism, along with an approach much more low-to-the-ground (big ideas are couched in little ideas, never the other way around), allowed Goines to side-step ideology, and ultimately provide his work with something closer to universality. Other people’s, other group’s ideas never step into the work and derail it from its focus on individuals, their actions, and their surroundings.

On the topic of big ideas, of over-arching statements–you know literary stuff–note that Goines never wrote a conventional autobiography. He has no personal manifesto. No breakdown of his own struggle. He doesn’t have his Pimp: the Story of My Life. Goines’ Whoreson is more an attempt to mimic Slim’s work (almost a work of Juvenilia), and that all his books in one way or another, are autobiographies makes him more like most conventional authors (pulling from life, turning it into fiction that then, resembles life).

A fairly conventional–dare I say, middle-class–sense of morality dominates Goines’ works as well. His books aren’t these odd, sideways street fables/parables like Slim’s books, but novels where what’s “right” and “wrong” is actually pretty clear. Though the “street code” is important to the books, Goines’ constant introduction of regular, working people and the interruption of a narrator who can’t always hide his disgust for the events he’s describing, balance the books out. He’s adroit at sequencing events in a way that makes the reader understand why a character’s doing this or that, but there’s not this nihilism in there that suggests it’s the only way. There’s stability in his books, there’s hope, it just isn’t always that easy to find.

The hope comes through in the obvious moralizing, but also in his sensitivity to the psychology of his characters. What lots of critics think of as inconsistencies in the book–shifting motivations, sudden kindness, etc.–is just reality. The way people shift or change in the moment, the way they don’t make sense, despite the soul-crushing patterns and codes they follow, is what Goines writes about…and all that Goines writes about.

And it’s this doesn’t-totally-work mixing of lurid, ugly “reality” with fairly conventional morality, with detours into street-code pragmatism that’s dominated the Street Fiction market since Goines. Slim is of note for sure, but his connection to what’s now categorized as “Urban Fiction” comes down to his early embrace of slang and influencing Goines.

Most Street Fiction though, misreads Goines. There’s a kind of pat, wrap-around morality or “everyone gets it in the end” that Goines wisely avoided or truly earned in his books. Go find a sex scene in Goines book and realize how cold and disinteresting it is. Notice how the violence pops-up out of nowhere and is over very quickly. They’re in there because the plot needs it, his publishers demanded it, and the audience loves it, but he keeps it moving A lot of contemporary Street Fiction reads more like what a Goines book seems like it’d be like before one actually opens it up and reads it.

This though, speaks more for Goines’ rarefied body of work than it does for Street Fiction in the 2000s, which indeed, must conform to today’s standards of shock, all the while smuggling in as many tougher doses of reality and insight as possible. All the while of course, under an even more watchful, limiting eye of the publisher, because Street Fiction’s big business now. I take what I previously said back–Goines was lucky to write in the early 70s.

Written by Brandon

February 14th, 2010 at 4:49 am

6 Responses to 'Locating Goines Pt. 4: Goines & Street Fiction'

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  1. I like what you said about Iceberg Slim here. I discovered Slim's and Goines' books around the same time and the former initially seemed like the superior writer. Literary types could potentially find more to sink their teeth into with Slim's, as you put it, "joy of words, writing about writing" verbiage. But when your subject matter is pimping and written from the perspective of the pimp, I guess you necessarily limit how seriously you will be taken.

    With Goines, the problem is amplified by the fact that he was more influenced by Slim's subject matter than his writing style. This probably further relegated him to the status trashy pulp writer in the eyes of the literati.


    14 Feb 10 at 11:07 pm

  2. Just a quick comment on my work break: interesting how you define "literary," I've really never thought about it until these Goines posts. Last night when I couldn't sleep, I was thinking your definition of "literary" would seem analogous to how we might define "lyrically lyrical," where punchline and metaphor rappers also have this joy of words, as opposed to like, Devin, who might be more focused on stories and characters. Or maybe I was just too sleep-deprived last night =\


    15 Feb 10 at 6:09 pm

  3. Brad-
    Totally on-point about Slim. If there's an issue with his writing, on the literary tip, it's that he's kinda sloppy and all over the place, which would just make him like Kerouac or somebody.

    But yeah, talking about pimp life will definitely limit how seriously you're taken. Though again, you babble on about being a fart-around vagabond and taking speed and you're the Beat "voice of a generation". Things are confusing.

    Have you heard Iceberg's album? "Reflections"? Go check it out, it's really good stuff, spoken word over smoothed-out soul jazz. You really get a sense of how great with language Slim was and how amazing his ability was to capture his own voice on paper.

    As is often the case when I'm discussing big ideas, put the important word at hand in perpetual quotes. There's definitely a connection between "literary" and "lyrical" in the sense that it's a constrictive set of qualities that are more know it when you hear it than like, tangible and are mainly use to marginalize certain voices than actually big-up anything.

    Indeed, it goes deeper than that in that this is a battle of values masquerading as one of taste. Slim of course is still marginalized, but yeah, he's playing with language, they're less of a means to an end (to tell a story) as they are for Goines…or Devin the Dude.


    16 Feb 10 at 12:00 am

  4. Slim > Goines >>> Street Fiction of the aughts.

    I find it odd when I often hear some of these new writers state Goines or Slim as an influence. Because the skill level is just doesn't match up. I also question the effort. I understand a number of them are hustling a story just like a wannabe emcee hustles a mixtape but some times there's no evidence of passion or knowledge of the craft.

    This reminds of how many young R&B artists often cite Stevie Wonder, Sarah Vaughn, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Minnie Ripperton or even a Michael Jackson as their musical influences. When you hear more material in their sophomore effort, there's no rhythm, no blues just some high-tech fodder without the experimentation of Wonder or an artist like Hancock. I wonder if many of the new writers actually read Goines or better yet, know the difference between there, their and they're.

    Most definitely will check out Iceberg's Reflections. Still waiting to peep Ice T's Iceberg Slim documentary.

    Oh yeah, did you ever check out Goines doppelgänger Omar Tyree?

    Vee (Scratch)

    16 Feb 10 at 8:24 am

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