The Big Gold DreamBy: Himes, Chester (male)
Publisher: Berkley Publishing Corp./Berkley Medallion Book (F-1270)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 270: PS3515 .I713 B48 1966
Contributor: K. Dykstra
GeneralEra: 1950s Author as on Cover: Chester Himes Geographic Locale: New York, NY; Harlem Date of Publication: 1966 | Original Date: 1960 Setting: urban; poverty-stricken district where everyone struggles to survive Motives: con games revolving around money, which everyone but the police seems to try to grab at some point; murders resulting from the attempts to get and keep the money. Alberta commits murder as revenge on the prophet for using her faith against her.
Religious convert Alberta Wright drops dead in the street after drinking water blessed by Sweet Prophet Brown. Alberta's ex-husband, Rufus, ransacks her furniture for hidden valuables before selling it off to Abie the Jew, who promptly discovers a stash. Abie is murdered, and his killer is murdered in turn by a third party. Alberta Wright reappears, living but uncooperative. Detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones join a variety of other Harlem residents in trying to untangle the series of thefts and murders that compose the novel.
Coffin Ed Johnson adult male, African-American, big, strong, scarred by acid thrown in his face in earlier episode; in "all but his face he was the counterpart of Grave Digger", said face being "like the mask of an African witch doctor", police detective
Grave Digger Jones adult male, African-American, big, strong; dark wrinkled suit, police detective
Rufus Wright adult male, African-American, slick-looking, colorful attire, wide, confidential grin, unemployed/criminal
George Clayborne adult male, age, race, physical characteristics unstated, kills Abie the Jew
"Sweet Prophet" Brown adult male, African-American, middle-aged, large; long multicolored fingernails, wears suits and robes, many rings, white hair; false prophet (con/thief)
Anonymous gun moll adult female, light African-American (called "yellow"), dyed blonde hair, tight purple silk Chinese gown, slim, beautiful, blinded due to beating by Slick Jenkins; lives with Slick Jenkins
Alberta Brown adult female, African-American, large and muscular; brown, cow-like eyes; smooth skin, maid's uniform; domestic servant
Abraham Finkelstein "Abie the Jew", adult male, middle-aged, small, white-haired; black suit and brown hat; junk dealer
George Clayborne adult male, murder victim
Susie Green adult male, African-American, broad shoulders, padded jacket, tight tan pants, cowboy boots, criminal (con, runs numbers)
Slick Jenkins adult male, African-American, pale yellow eyes; wears money belt; criminal (payoff man, Tia Juana house - controls Susie Green)
"Dummy" adult male, African-American, beaten up until deaf in the boxing ring; tongue cut out to prevent testimony against boxing bosses (hence his nickname); still physically strong; former prizefighter trying to find a new setup: pimping, informing, and trying to get in on scams surrounding Alberta's money
Sugar Stonewall adult male, African-American, wears wrinkled suit, unemployed (Alberta's man)
knives, guns and false accusation
Level of Violence
Abie and Clayborne die in a pursuit and suspense-filled chapter, grimly taken piece by piece as they try to escape. Rufus, having apparently killed Clayborne and sustained injuries from their battle, subsequently turns up dead in a bush with additional wounds inflicted by an unknown party. Otherwise, multiple violent incidents are mentioned briefly, in a matter-of-fact tone. The final murders occur swiftly. When, at the end of the novel, the gun moll explains that she's not Slick's wife, but a woman whom he "blinded, beating me with his fists" there is a tiny opening for emotional response: "During the embarassed silence that followed, no one looked at anyone else." The gun moll's victimization justifies her decision to set Slick up with false testimony, as well as the detectives' willingness to accept that testimony.
Sexuality is mentioned briefly. Tone is frequently tragic. Adultery is duly noted; it is explained with naturalistic connotations (economic pressures, deceit and violence). A prostitute gets "Georgia-ed", bilked of the money owed her by Susie; the detectives allow Dummy his attempt at pimping because he has no other livelihood and because the women "want" to be prostituted. One trickster scene is humorous; it involves a janitor who is first conned into an anti-impotence massage and then cuckolded, after which he believes that the massage has in fact worked.
traditional, as mediated by working-class and criminal class fores. Many women are described as domestic servants; prostitutes; gun moll. Men: tough guys abound. Detectives frequently use guns to produce order. Given the naturalistic tone of the novel, though, it's hard to say that any of the men are particularly "idealized" for/through their violence. Many are unemployed or working as criminals. Sexist attitudes abound, ranging from depiction of young women as sex objects to depiction of larger, older women as low-paid workers who live with men to whom they are not married; the women generally expect love and loyalty from their unemployed men in exchange for money. Again, no "ideal" model seems to be endorsed.
racist actions/beliefs are indicated indirectly, in the form of naturalism: the social and economic forces that have shaped Harlem and the lives of the residents. Abie the Jew and some fleeting white policemen are some of the only non-African-Americans in Himes' Harlem. The caricature of Abie the Jew employs anti-Semitic attitudes (drooling at the sight of money, etc.)
Slick, Susie, and the gun moll use marijuana, opium and cocaine; presumably a crime and one that seems to mark them for failure even within the community that houses so many other sorts of criminals.
New York City police enforce the law up to a point. Their lieutenant "knew they had their own personal interpretation of law enforcement. Some people they never touched - such as madames of orderly houses of prostitution, operators of orderly gambling games, people connected with the numbers racket, streetwalkers who stayed in their district. But they were rough on criminals of violence and confidence men. And he had always thought they were rough on dope peddlers and pimps, too. They go lightly though, on the would-be pimp, Dummy. He is an ex-prizefighter who has been used, abused, and tossed out of the system - a victim, they explain, of forces beyond his control.
humor in frequent fits and starts. Examples: Rufus and Abie the Jew eat Alberta's pot of alligator tails and rice while they are stealing her furniture; the sexual trickster scene with the janitor. Social conditions noted: prostitution, poverty, unemployment
Murder/ Poverty/ New York (N.Y.) - Harlem/ Religion/ Sexism/ Prostitution/ Unemployment/ Money/ African-Americans/ Police/ Detectives/ Theft
most striking is the fact that no one seems innocent; everyone in this community seems perpetually guilty of something, a sort of naturalistically pathologized community. Criminals aren't so much regular folks as regular folks are criminals. The gun moll has been abused. Coffin Ed is always on the verge of disaster, reacting to the violent acid attack in his past, and prone to be overly violent with stool pigeons and suspects. Grave Digger calms him. Affect-oriented psychological paradigm (discomfort created by elements of naturalism, absurdity), sociopolitical backdrop.