"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
IN 1937, Chester Himes completed the first draft of his first, and arguably most provocative, novel, a hard-hitting account of homosexual love amid the madness, flames and riots of prison life. Himes himself would say of the work, “the protagonist of my prison story was a Mississippi white boy but … obviously it was the story of my own prison experiences.”
The novel — which Himes alternately called “Yesterday Will Make You Cry,” “Present Tense” and “Black Sheep” — underwent six significant rewrites over the course of 15 years before it was finally released under the title “Cast the First Stone.” Although Himes’ reputation had begun to soar with the publication of “The Lonely Crusade” and “If He Hollers Let Him Go” (which were written and published in the 1940s), “Cast the First Stone” had been cut in half since the original draft, changed from third person to first and purged of all but its most obvious homoerotic themes. But most shockingly of all, the work had literally been white-washed: Several of the major characters who were black in earlier drafts were bleached white in order to appease the book’s jittery and conservative publisher.
For all the indignities that Himes suffered, it turns out he fared considerably better than dozens of other writers who make up a lost legacy of African-American noir. In their lifetime, most wrote for publishing houses that didn’t appreciate their talents and didn’t have a clue as to how to market and sell them. It is little wonder their works failed to catch on. History has been even less kind. Today, it is almost as if these authors never existed, and their searing, scorched-earth accomplishments are all but forgotten.
I FIRST LEARNED of this diverse and scattered tradition several years ago. My search began with my discovery of Donald Goines.
The godfather of black pulp fiction, Goines was an addict, pimp, burglar and hustler in the years before he picked up the pen. Goines had an ear to the 70s street and an eye for stories that were sordid, grim, raw and hopelessly real. Working with adrenaline- and drug-fueled intensity, Goines published an incredible 17 novels from 1968 through 1974. A bullet to the head in a botched drug heist ended his literary dreams forever.
What I didn’t know when I started my journey was just how popular Donald Goines was. Published in cheap editions by Los Angeles’ Holloway House, Goines sold millions of copies to black America, not in bookstores but in mom-and-pop venues far beneath the radar of traditional publishing houses. Today, Goines’ novels continue to sell big among black men, a testament to his honest, muscular writing and the lack of any contemporary works that speak to their experiences. However, Goines remains an anathema to critics and scholars who’ve never given him even a glimmer of recognition.
After plowing through Goines, I set out to see what other black crime writers were out there. It wasn’t easy. There was no coherent path to follow. Bibliographies made no mention of these novelists; they didn’t turn up in anthologies or digests. Most published only one or two books, garnered few reviews and left little evidence of their literary existence behind.
To find what I was looking for, I eventually had to go off road. I scoured crawl spaces, garage sales, lending libraries in far-off places, used book shops on three continents. I even hired a private eye. Two years after my search began, I had rounded up about 50 books. Taken together, they seemed to form the basis of a school — an old school. It was a group of hard-boiled, hard-nosed writers, working in — and in many ways exceeding — the traditional crime and suspense genre.
Who were these writers? People like Robert Deane Pharr, who was a waiter until he turned 53, and published six dark and brutally funny works over the next eight years. And Roland Jefferson, whose “School On 103rd Street” was published for hire by a vanity press after being passed up by all of the major houses. I also rediscovered Clarence Cooper Jr., who published six unrelenting masterpieces chronicling the mentality of the drug addict, only to die penniless and afraid at a New York City YMCA. And Herbert Simmons, whose first novel, “Corner Boy,” won him the prestigious Houghton Mifflin Fellowship at age 27, but whose career came to an abrupt end five years later with the release of his more politically charged follow-up, “Man Walking On Eggshells.”
Armed with a concept and a French editorial partner, I approached W.W. Norton about creating an imprint devoted to rediscovering the best — and toughest — crime fiction of the 1950s through the 1970s. As the house responsible for launching Walter Mosley, they seemed like the perfect match. Walter’s editor, Gerry Howard, agreed. The result, Old School Books, kicked off last July with the publication of its first four novels and continued last month with the publication of four more.
In launching the line, it was important to ask myself why these books failed to catch on the first time around, and what it would take to ensure that didn’t happen again. Answers to the first question came more easily then the second.
Unlike Donald Goines, whose goal was to create readable books at affordable prices, most of these “old school” writers were going after bigger literary game. Set against the dying ruins of the postwar era, their books chronicled the truth about the hurt, pain, frustration and rage of the urban American experience. Offering a ground-level view of the ghetto horror show, this blood-soaked literature had little to do with presenting positive role models or swaggering, larger than life Shaft- and Superfly-like tough guys. Alienated and existential, it offered a running commentary about the black America that stood to benefit little from the civil rights movement — and cared even less.
But for all their crashing menace and creeping violence, these novels were not dime-store throwaways, even if they were often packaged to look that way. They were edgy and extreme. They were jagged, prickly and very politicized. They were formally experimental, incorporating the rhythms of jazz and beat poetry, the structure of the traditional crime novel and an artistic daring reminiscent of Western classics by Joyce and Dostoevsky. What they arrived at was something shockingly modern and way ahead of its time.
Not that they were entirely alone. Also being published in paperback at the time, in a different cultural orbit, were idiosyncratic and groundbreaking authors like Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford and David Goodis. They too sought to make use of — and transcend — the limitations of detective novels they inherited from James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But these authors were white, and while they weren’t much celebrated in their lifetime, in recent years they have come to enjoy much retrospective praise.
As black men writing at the height of the civil rights movement, these old school writers found themselves doubly marginalized. White readers took little interest in reading fiery dispatches by angry black men, no matter their literary merit. Nor, it turns out, did most blacks. Unlike Ralph Ellison or James Baldwin, whose works reflected on, and indeed shaped, the politics of the day, these old school authors offered no happy endings, no simple solutions. They held out little hope for political change. Indeed, these “popular” writers rarely engaged in the more didactic politicking expected of the era’s high-brow literature. Out on a limb, in an aesthetic no man’s land, they failed to resonate and simply fell through the cracks.
Consider the insurgent dispatches of Clarence Cooper Jr. To me, he offers the ultimate expression of this old school sensibility. He is also the saddest example of a brave author who never enjoyed his due.
A writer of prodigious gifts and self-destructive tendencies, Cooper was only 26 when Crown Books (a division of Random House) published his first novel, “The Scene.” Revolving around the criminal exploits of pimp-pusher Rudy Black, the novel is uniquely structured in a series of flashbacks and “flashforwards.” By turns hyper-stylized and nearly documentary in approach, the book earned favorable comparisons to Nelson Algren and William S. Burroughs in The New Yorker and the New York Times when it was released in 1960. By all rights it should have set the stage for an impressive literary career.
That didn’t happen. A lifelong heroin addict, Cooper was back in jail when the reviews came out. Shunned by the more respectable hardback publishers, Cooper’s next three novels were released in paperback in slash-and-trash editions by Regency House. This low-end, bottom-feeding outfit was edited by the young Harlan Ellison, and published Jim Thompson, Robert Bloch and Phillip Jose Farmer among its more pulpish offerings.
Cooper was a tough sell, Ellison recently told me. “I knew he was an incredibly talented writer — a lot of people did. But getting readers to listen was another story.” Regency’s tight-rope act can be seen in Ellison’s introduction to Cooper’s 1962 collection, “Black.” “Clarence Cooper, Jr.,” Ellison wrote, “is black and can not get along with the world. No special star shone at his birth to tell anyone that another dark face or special talent had come to stare at us and wonder what place it could find for itself. He had to find his own place and his own message and that message is here.”
“There is a small coterie of readers who swear by Clarence Cooper, Jr. … (who) is, they maintain, one of the most underrated writers in America,” wrote the Negro Digest in 1967. It was one of the few publications to acknowledge the release of Cooper’s final book, “The Farm.” Not that it liked it.
Cooper was just 32 and still in prison in 1966 when he wrote it. An acidic bit of high-risk fiction, “The Farm” is a skewed and disorienting work. Crossing a literary style that anticipates the most radical strains of contemporary fiction with Dante’s “Inferno,” “The Farm” relates the story of a desperate junkie who finds love — and redemption — in a co-ed prison for narcotics-addicted inmates. Cooper’s most ambitious and personal novel, it was also his last. Dismayed by its failure, Cooper drifted in and out of jail for another 12 years but never published again.
The commercial bankruptcy of Cooper — and the other old school writers — did much more than just destroy their careers and in many cases their lives. It has, I would argue, had a disastrous — and lasting effect — on contemporary black literary expression.
Emboldened by my successful launch of Old School Books, I recently began planning a contemporary line. It will be made up of entertaining black fiction (and literary nonfiction) with an edge. You know: not exactly airport reading, certainly nothing high-brow, but, like the Old School, on the knife’s edge where the serious and the sensational meet.
In trying to set up this new line, I have scoured the country for the children of Donald Goines and Clarence Cooper Jr., without much luck. While black, middle-class women novelists are enjoying an unprecedented era of success, many of the most talented black male writers have abandoned the book world altogether. And who can blame them? Most can’t remember a time when the publishing business proved it was interested in developing and nurturing black male literary talent. Especially writers who are as bleak and uncompromising as rap stars like Tupac Shakur, or as formally inventive as the Roots.
It goes without saying that there are talented black male writers out there. However, they are now plying their trade in the more lucrative worlds of the cinema and rap music, or the steady-paying arena of print journalism. In an effort to lure them back into the fold, I have promised them a bright new future in book publishing. They are wary, but hopeful that their time has finally come.
I gave W.W. Norton the first crack at this new line. I’d hoped to establish a continuous link between the past and future, as well as to exploit a burgeoning brand name. There was already an industry precedent: Vintage Books imprint Black Lizard began by reprinting the works of Thompson, Hammett and Chandler and has gone on to publish contemporary works in the same vein.
W.W. Norton ultimately passed on the project. While it was prepared to acquire several titles I’d proposed, it was not ready to make an all-out commitment. It would have been much more editorially demanding than launching Old School Books, Norton argued. And expensive.
Several other major houses have subsequently expressed interest in launching Pitch Black. Like Norton, they are operating with extreme caution. They see one big problem — the manuscripts simply aren’t there yet.
Unlike publishing’s old days, when editors worked with promising writers and helped shape, refine and polish their works, editors today aren’t willing to risk taking on literary projects that aren’t yet fully formed. This isn’t only true of black male novelists. It’s a problem endemic to the industry. However, it is black men who pay the biggest price.
After such a long dry spell, novels by black men aren’t going to arrive at any editor’s desk fully formed. A generation of writers must be developed and nurtured, signed to contracts that will reward them handsomely if they succeed, and protect the publisher in the event they fail.
It is not that the publishing industry doesn’t care. This is an era of slim margins and shrinking sales. Like the cigarette companies that have had to seek tomorrow’s profits in emerging markets, publishers would sorely love to sell books to what is potentially a major niche.
But a long-term investment must be made. It must replace the quick buck, bottom-line mentality that prevails today.
The continued success of Goines and the warm reception given to Old School Books shows that there is a readership out there. It’s now up to the industry to find some way to capture it.
Marc Gerald is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles, and the former managing editor of True Detective magazineMore Marc Gerald.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)