11 August 2007

Say It Out Loud

Some authors beg to be read aloud. Louis L'Amour, especially his early Sackett novels, is at his best when spoken. His prose is direct and has a natural storyteller's easy flow. Tony Hillerman's Leaphorn and Chee mysteries are better out loud. He has a great sense of place and draws concise, vivid pictures of the southwestern landscape. Like L'Amour, he has a straightforward literary style, without ornamentation. Genre writers have to master this--plot and character have more impact on the genre reader than arty construction. The masters have seized the confines of the genre and shaken a distinct tone, mood or style out of it, and made their mark. Sort of like being straitjacketed and winning a dance contest--the very strictures become your brushstrokes. I recently discovered the powerful beauty of a noir master, Chester Himes, by reading him out loud. The Real Cool Killers is a Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson adventure, set in 1950's Harlem. The two detectives work the toughest beat in the city, and they have to be tougher than everyone in it to do their jobs and survive. Mr. Himes' prose is so wickedly dark, funny, bleak and brilliant you have to say it out loud, stop, and say it again:

The loud licking rhythm blasted from the jukebox with enough heat to melt bones.

Flash bulbs went off around the corpses like an anti-aircraft barrage.

She looked like the last of the Amazons blackened by time.

Much of the story is told in dialogue, and much of that in dialect, but it is written so well it is fun to read:

"Naw suh, he brung 'em and took 'em away by hisself. I never even seen any of 'em."

"I don't know only two of 'em." He separated them gingerly with his fingertips as though they were coated with external poison. "Them two. This here one is called Good Booty, t'other one is called Honey Bee. This one here, I never heard her name called."

The story is short, only 158 pages, and fast-paced. Most of the action takes place in one afternoon and evening, and the whole episode lasts maybe three days. I'm looking forward to tackling some more Chester Himes--The Collected Stories, which I found along with The Real Cool Killers at Powell's. Alas, I won't be reading them aloud. For the record, I gave Gravedigger my best basso profundo, and Coffin Ed a rasping growl. For more Chester Himes, check out his page at Vintage Crime/Black Lizard or the aforementioned Powell's.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Missed reading 10 August until just know, so have added a comment there. Thanks for pointing us to Only Baseball Matters -- what a relief that is. NOC