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George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

For Love of Imabelle

cover image By: Himes, Chester (male)
Publisher: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. (2697)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 270: PS3515 .I713 F6 1971b
Contributor: K. Dykstra

General

Era: 1960s Author as on Cover: Chester Himes Geographic Locale: New York, NY; Harlem Date of Publication: 1971  |  Original Date: 1965 Setting: urban; slums Motives: a confidence game lies behind the plot, robbery, murder Alternate Title: A Rage in Harlem

Plot Summary

This novel, like others by Chester Himes, features a large number of characters, and does not follow one of them exclusively. Most central, though, is Jackson: the "square" who works for the local undertaker. Jackson loses his money and money that he has "borrowed" from his employer, caught in a confidence game by his not-so-faithful girlfriend Imabelle, her common-law husband Slim, and Slim's cohorts. Jackson appeals to his brother, Goldy, for help after being swindled. Goldy, whose work consists of passing himself off as a Sister of Charity, happens to be an informant for detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Sometimes acting independently and sometimes seeking help from the detectives, Goldy tries to track down the swindlers and save his brother's reputation. While his reputation is in jeopardy, Jackson's innocence needs no saving: he will always be a dupe and a square. His shortsightedness will contribute in important ways to the misadventures that shape the plot. (Note: this book contains the acid-throwing incident that affects the Coffin Ed character for the rest of Himes' other Harlem novels.)


Major Characters

Coffin Ed Johnson adult male, African-American, big, strong, police detective

Grave Digger Jones adult male, African-American, big, strong, will be disfigured with acid, police detective

Goldy adult male, African-American, round and dark, smooth-skinned, two gold teeth, impersonates nun, police informer

Imabelle adult female, light "high yellow" African-American, very desirable, part of confidence game

Slim adult male, African-American, con man

Gus Parsons adult male, African-American, "medium-sized, brown-skinned", nicely dressed, well-spoken, con man (member of Slim's gang)

Hank adult male, African-American, "yellow," usually dressed to play a part, con man (Slim's gang)

Jodie adult male, African-American, usually dressed to play a part, con man (Slim's gang)

Jackson adult male, African-American, 28 years old, "short, black, fat man with purple-red gums and pearly-white teeth made for laughing," works for undertaker


Weapons

guns, acid (only in the acid-throwing incident), knives


Level of Violence

the neighborhood, as depicted by Himes, is a violent area. Scenes with other primary themes tend to include violence as well. Furthermore, the violence can have comic overtones, e.g. when Jackson goes to a bar, he observes a fight between two anonymous men who happen to be wearing multiple layers of clothing with newspaper stuffed into them for additional warmth: "They kept slashing away at one another like two rag dolls battling in buck-dancing fury, spilling old clothes and last week's newsprint instead of blood." (Chapter 10). Goldy's death unifies several aspects of the narrative. His scream coincides with the whistle of a train moving overhead. The train is "shaking the entire tenement city. Shaking the sleeping black people in their lice-ridden beds" (Chapter 18). Himes writes about a series of other things being shaken: cockroaches, plaster, clogged toilets, etc. The rhythm and smell of Goldy's blood gets attention as well, his body's convulsions still accompanied by the train's movement. Elsewhere, Jackson is woken up by the train whistle, and Imabelle cuts an attacker with a knife while the whistle blows. Another one of the more complex scenes of violence occurs when Grave Digger, seething after his partner's disfigurement with acid, realizes that he has found one of the people from the scene of that crime and he hits Imabelle in the police station: "He slapped her with such savage violence it spun her out of the chair to end in a grotesque splay-legged posture on her belly on the floor, the red dress hiked so high it showed the black nylon panties she wore. 'And that ain't all,' he said." (Chapter 19). Jodie and Hank's deaths are graphic: one is chopped open with an axe, while the other is shot through both eyes.


Sexuality

sexuality reads across power. Imabelle's sexuality is central to the plot, if her sexuality is to be interpreted as the outward-directed force that becomes the lure for multiple traps. Imabelle's sexual desires are hard to read in this novel; she is generally read by others more than by herself. It is Jackson's overwhelming desire for Imabelle that motivates him to fall for the con game, and his continued susceptibility to her leads Jackson to leave Goldy in an obviously dangerous position (at which point Goldy is killed). If Jackson's outward-directed sexuality is depicted at all, it is only in order to downplay it: Jackson is too much of a "square" in everyone's view to be sexually powerful. A possible divergence from traditional heterosexuality divides occurs when we learn about Goldy's cross-dressing. Not only does he dress as a woman, he has lived and worked in the past with a group of men who also cross-dress on a regular basis. However, Himes does not actively pursue this issue through the lens of sexuality. In fact, by making Goldy dress as a nun, he seems to be looking for a way to avoid interactions which would foreground sexuality. Instead, Goldy's cross-dressing serves him for information-gathering purposes and allows him to earn money by selling tickets to heaven. Opposite the well-covered and unsexed Goldy is Billie. Billie, who runs the house of prostitution, is transgendered: "She was a brown-skinned woman in her middle forties, with a compact husky body filling a red gabardine dress. With a man's haircut, and a smooth, thick, silky mustache, her face resembled that of a handsome man. But her body was a cross. The top two buttons of the dress were open, and between her two immense uplifted breasts was a thick growth of satiny black hair" (Chapter 23). We learn later that Billie is emotionally attached to one of her young female prostitutes. She kills Jodie with an axe when he tries to hold the young woman as a hostage.


Gender Roles

Imabelle's role as a femme fatale of very questionable ethics may not be traditional, but it certainly is not progressive. Despite Himes' interesting scene with the churchgoer, it is entirely possible to view Imabelle without any sympathy. Jackson is, notably, NOT a tough guy. His attempts at chivalry are not productive. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger use violence as a tool; however, they do not seem to be idealized males. Himes' matter-of-fact tone suggests a certain distance from their characters. There do not seem to be any idealized characters, male or female, in this narrative. Goldy's cross-dressing is an effective tool for him. It does not seem to include sexual overtones.


Ethnicity

Himes sets his mysteries in Harlem and peoples them primarily with African-American characters. The characters are conscious of race, frequently referring to it in conversation. However, Himes does not create openly heroic African-Americans moving through a challenging landscape. These characters are shaped by a variety of forces, such as the poor economic conditions that surround them. Himes' treatment of Imabelle complicates race with gender. Classified as "high yellow," Imabelle seems the epitome of a femme fatale whose racial characteristics contribute to her sexual appeal and thus enable her to take advantage of "marks" like Jackson. This treatment of race is reinforced by various voices within the novel, who comment on the power that "high yellow" women exercise over men. HImes works back against this easy classification to some extent in Chapter 19. There, he satirizes the "respectable, church-going man who sees no hypocrisy in his assumption that he should be able to "give the girl a play" when Imabelle walks past him outside a train station. Imabelle refuses to fulfill the "good husband's" expectation that she will be his whore, smacking him with her purse to make him let go of her body. After he persists, "aiming to throw her to the pavement and rape her then and there," Imabelle slashes him with a knife and runs into the women's bathroom. Pursuing her into the station, the man runs into a detective, who laughs and remarks, "Better let those bright whores alone, Daddy-O." While the reader is aware the Imabelle has not solicited this particular man, her conduct elsewhere in the novel seems to encourage the reader to use these negative, racialized cues to interpret her treatment of Jackson and other males as sexual manipulation and deceit. Furthermore, she's handy with a knife.


Alcohol/Drug Abuse

knowing that his brother Jackson might be more of a liability than a help, Goldy knocks him out with a strong drink ("it had tasted like musty tequila flavored with chicken bile, and it had burned his gullet like cayenne pepper," -- Chapter 4). In Chapter 10, Jackson visits a bar and buys alcohol, but he does so in order to seem like a "mark" so that he can track down con men. Goldy uses crystal cocaine and morphine. He is a more or less sympathetic character, but he will die by the end of the book, hinting at a connection between drugs and ill fate without ever making the connection explicit. Additionally, two gang members, Hank and Jodie, use opium in a brothel just before they are shot and killed by the police detectives. On the other hand, Jackson's relative innocence regarding alcohol and drugs is not a sign of greater intellect or better ethics; instead, his innocence is part of his general identity as a dangerously simple-minded "square."


Law Enforcement

the police detectives are most interested in solving the "more serious" crimes in a place that the author clearly designates as a high crime zone. Grave Digger's actions take on a more violent and vengeful edge after his partner, Coffin Ed, is painfully disfigured with acid.


Added Features

frequent humor is intermixed with violence and tragedy. For example, Goldy is a likeable character whose death sets a nasty tone for many aspects of the narrative; after he is quite dead, though, his body can become a prop in a semi-comic car chase across the city. Gambling: when conned early in the story, Jackson loses his last money at craps (somewhat inevitably). There is some particularly fascinating material characterizing the desperation of the social conditions in the Harlem area in Chapter 19.


Subject Headings

Detectives/ New York (N.Y.) - Harlem/ Swindlers and swindling/ Police/ African-Americans


Psychological Elements

combination of violence and humor, combined with frequently noted misery of the region, make this an uncomfortable narrative. It is undoubtedly entertaining, but its narrative is frequently affect-oriented and saturated with indirect (naturalistic) sociopolitical energies.