Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Ghetto Guignol

Today Joseph Hirsch is looking at the work, life and legacy of Donald Goines. When Joey isn't writing, he's sleeping. When he isn't writing twisted fiction in genres spanning crime, science fiction, horror, western or pornography he pens the occasional non-fiction piece on boxing, literature or his time in Iraq. I've been happy to publish a handful of his articles at HBW.

Ghetto Guignol 
by Joseph Hirsch

“…without drugs, at this stage of my life, [it’s] not only difficult, but damn near impossible. I can’t concentrate enough to work without them. If I smoke weed, it makes me daydream too much, so that in the end, I don’t have any work did (sic). If I get a shot of heroin, I am able to work from morning to night, my writing seems to be better, and I can think… I need to go into a hospital or something because I’m not able to afford the price of drugs now… The only money we have to live on is the $50 check I get from my publisher once a week, plus Shirley’s check, which comes every two weeks. It’s a hell of a small amount… I don’t want to sound [d]efiant, or like some smart ass nigger. What I’m trying to say is, ‘Help.’…” - Donald Goines, Private Thoughts

The author Donald Goines was shot and killed along with his common-law wife many years ago. Notwithstanding this his publisher Holloway House continues to receive a deluge of letters from new readers addressed to Messier Goines. These fans are unaware that Donald Goines is not only dead, but that the location of his gravestone in Michigan is so obscured by either overgrowth, poor maintenance, or just the vagaries of time, that a film crew attempting to make a documentary about the legendary crime writer couldn’t find his burial plot. A diligent biographer had equally bad luck, but his inability to locate the headstone might have been compounded by the fact that he was searching for the grave marker in the dead of winter.

Donnie’s books sold well-enough in his own lifetime. Titles like Dopefiend, Whoreson, and Black Gangster sold over two-hundred thousand copies combined while the author was still alive, but he never did a formal Q & A, and made a lone appearance on a local public broadcast in his native Detroit. His formal obituary even failed to mention he was a writer. Years ago the comedian Greg Giraldo (R.I.P.) told the comedian Katt Williams, “You’re like afro-sheen. White people have heard of you, but they don’t know what the fuck you do.” The same could perhaps be said of Donald Goines, even among a large segment of white pulp/hardboiled fans.

Holloway House has sold more than five-million copies of Goines’ books as of this writing, but a lot of those copies have been sold in barbershops, beauty salons, in ghettos, and from secondary markets (like the trunks of cars and in prisons) where not a lot of white people besides process servers and bail-bondsmen show their pale faces. There are certain black writers who chronicle the plight of the inner-city for a white audience, or to shine a light on harsh living conditions in the hopes that change might be affected, but Donald Goines is not counted among their number. He talked about the ghetto, to the ghetto. If you’re white and you want to read his work, fine, but we’re eavesdropping interlopers in this case, not the intended audience.

Goines did two stretches in prison, one for holding up a numbers house with a compatriot (while under surveillance by the cops for “white slavery”) and a longer and more serious bid for running an illegal distillery whose fermenting fumes attracted the cops and got him a stay in the federal pen. Goines had picked up a penchant for “Wong” as he called heroin, while stationed in the Orient as a military police officer during the Korean War. His habit was so heavy between stretches in prison that, when he and his stable of prostitutes weren’t shoplifting, he even managed to once accidentally rob a bingo game in progress where his mom was one of the principal players. She beat him with her purse, called him all kind of names, and he decided to pack it in on that particular day.

Donnie’s experience with prostitutes stretched back to his childhood in Detroit, when he and his little crimies would heat loose bricks around hobo fires and then sell the mortar squares to hookers for a $1 a piece. The women would use the bricks as mini-heaters to keep warm while waiting for tricks driving by in their cars to stop and pick them up. The paradox of Donnie’s feelings for women came to a head one day when his sister (with whom he was close) saw him berating one of his bitches for being out of pocket on the street.“Stop that!” His sister Jonie said. “Leave her alone!" The whore turned from Donnie to look at the girl in front of her, and her fear of her pimp turned to anger at this young thing’s audacity. “Bitch, who the fuck is you?” Goines slapped the prostitute so hard that she fell to the ground. He had hurt her to protect his sister’s honor, at least in his own eyes.

Goines’ view of women is problematic for the modern reader, to put it mildly. Next to him, Charles Bukowski seems like a social justice warrior. One of Goines’ road dogs willing to speak of his old friend talked to a biographer about how Goines saw everything through the lens of pimpology. While watching his favorite show Bewitched at his girlfriend’s house, he would shout at the television. He called the milquetoast husband of Samantha a punk and a trick. He heaped abuse on the character played by Dick York while smoking reefer in his girlfriend’s pad and blowing so many shotgun hits to his lady’s bird that he eventually suffocated the thing in its cage.

The subject matter of Goines’ books made it inevitable that rappers would eventually find out about him and name-drop him in their songs. Off the top of my head I can think of several reference to his works in Hip-Hop lyrics. At one point East Coaster Jadakiss bragged that he has a “knife game like Daddy Cool,” (go to 00:42 for the reference), who is the eponymous character in my favorite of Goines’s novels. The book is about a man who prefers a blade to a gun. In the book, when Mr. Cool discovers his daughter is being lured to the street life he decides to slice his way through those corrupting his baby rather than bothering to lecture his girl on her waywardness.

Daddy Cool is an apolitical cousin to Goines’s other alter-ego, Kenyatta, who is a cross between Frank Castle and Huey P. Newton. Kenyatta is a man who may loathe whites as a group, but is not above forming an alliance with police in certain circumstances if it means taking down drug dealers. Eventually one of the rappers who read Goines while in the slammer finally decided to help realize the man’s vision on screen. That man was Earl “DMX” Simmons, and the book was Never Die Alone.

The film is helmed by Ernest P. Dickerson (Spike Lee’s old director of photography, who has the early 90s classic Juice under his belt). The cast is stocked with big actors in small roles, including Tiny Lister (a classic “that guy” character with “those eyes” who played the president in The Fifth Element) and Clifton Powell, the guy who played a grimy, lollipop-sucking pimp in the Hughes’ BrothersDead Presidents. The troupe is rounded out by Aisha Tyler (the only host on E!TV’s Talk Soup whose broadcasts I masturbated to) as well as Michael Ealy, whose eyes and complexion bear an uncanny resemblance to the features of the late Mr. Goines himself (it was rumored that some woman in Donnie’s family tree was raped by CSA president Jeff Davis, which helped give Goines his pallid-mocha skin tone).

I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, so a basic summary should suffice: King David (played by DMX) is a hustler who is returning from the West Coast to his old stomping grounds back East. He stole some dope from his old employer, who gives him two options upon his return: pay me back or get bodied. King David (whose last name is never revealed) agrees to pay what he owes, and meets two of the black don’s bagmen outside of a small bar where a struggling writer (played by David Arquette) is also knocking back a few. The two heavies show up to collect from King David in front of the bar. The only problem is that the guys the kingpin sent to get the money are young hotheads. Words are exchanged and one of the thugs gets wounded by King David, who also manages to deal the DMX character a mortal blow. The bagboys flee, licking their wounds. King David is left to bleed out into the gutter in front of the bar, at least until David Arquette shows up and helps the black man to the hospital. King David dies in the OR, but he is so grateful to his intervening white angel that before he dies he tells the hospital staff he wishes to will his effects to the journalist. David Arquette  leaves the ER splattered in blood, carrying a wad of money, the keys to a pimpmobile, and most intriguingly, a series of cassettes on which King David narrates his life of crime and misdeeds in unapologetic tones.

These tapes provide a cool framing device for the movie, and some neat flashback scenes of how King David ingratiated himself to several women, got them strung out, and, when he felt he no longer needed their services, how he replaced their heroin with the corroded white powder that collected on his car’s battery! I remember one critic decrying the movie as filled with “hood clich├ęs.” I’ve seen several movies in the subgenre (from South Central to Menace II Society). I don’t recall any involving a subplot about a drug dealer who killed by using the corrosion on his car battery. As to the quality of the movie itself, I was skeptical at first. There are enough Dutch angles in the opening stanzas to make Battlefield Earth jealous, and DMX’s voiceover has all the subtlety of a prison rapist barking orders at his cellie to strip naked. David Arquette tries to stow his smile throughout the movie, as he seems to do in every performance, but that borderline character-breaking twinkle in the eye sort of grows on you.

After a shaky twenty minutes or so, the innate kernel of Donald Goines’ genius - his ability to present horrible people without judging them, as well as a natural knack for storytelling - overpowers whatever deficiencies there are in the script and in the performances. Ernest Dickerson acquits himself well in staging some of the scenes. Much like with Hype Williams’ music video-disguised-as-movie Belly, the candy-colored compositions of palm trees and crimson-bloody sunsets are beautiful enough in their own right, and remind the viewer that the guy is a capable cinematographer.

As the credits rolled after the final plot twist (which I did not see coming) I surprised myself with my own conclusion. Shit, that wasn’t bad. It was actually even kind of good.  I wonder what Goines would have thought of the movie? If I had to guess, I think he would be flattered to know that it even existed.

At one point in his career Donald Goines had relocated from his native Detroit to Los Angeles. He’d made the move in part to be closer to his publisher’s headquarters, but also in the hopes that he could break into the film industry and get something of his adapted. It was not to be. The furthest he got in Tinsel Town was a small part as a cop in the futuristic thriller Soylent Green.

Years ago I remember reading something by Sol Yurick, who wrote the book The Warriors. What was his favorite part of the Walter Hill film they made from his book? Naturally he said it was the in the beginning, as the Warriors were riding on the subway toward the big conclave with Cyrus and the rest of the gangs, when the credits were scrolling through the tunnel: “Music by Barry DeVorzon” “Directed by Walter Hill”…and then, in big red letters “…Sol Yurick…” There’s no question that Goines would have felt acquitted by seeing millions of dollars invested in realizing his vision on-screen and just seeing his name up in lights.

The film was a box-office bomb, and got a critical drubbing on Rotten Tomatoes and other online aggregators. And yet, there are others out there who saw whatever I saw in the movie . Watch it for yourself and see if it works for you. What Goines would think of the movie is of course a rhetorical exercise at this point. He has been dead for a long time now, and his murder remains unsolved.

Donnie, his common-law wife, and their children were living together in a four-family housing complex in Michigan when the hit occured. The gunmen left behind their murder weapons, but no prints were found. At least ten hours elapsed between the time the shots were fired and when the bodies were discovered. The children were left unharmed, and lived to tell conflicting stories. One girl who survived the incident shouted the name of a local drug pusher repeatedly, until cooler heads intervened and hushed the girl up for her own safety. Another of Donnie’s associates recalled playing cards with his friend shortly before the murder took place. Their game was interrupted when two heavyset, blond white men barged in on the game. Donnie took the men to the bathroom for an impromptu pow-wow. Goines’s friend speculates the two men traveled from California to collect on a drug debt Donnie left unsettled on the West Coast before returning home, after coming up snake eyes in the City of Dreams (sort of like King David).

Still another theory persists that because Donnie wrote about the real doings of people on the street, that some of those whom he used fictionally in his writing didn’t take kindly to the liberties taken. He may have taken pains to disguise the real names and dates of drug deals gone wrong and murders in and around Motown, but his clattering typewriter must have sounded like a wagging tongue to some of his former associates. Donnie acknowledged in one of his private, unpublished letters to himself that what he called “writing” others might call “snitching.”

Whoever the killers were, they at least had the decency to leave the children alive, one of whom recounts being shepherded away by the gunmen, who assured her, “We don’t kill little girls” before blasting both of the adults into the hereafter. Other children descended from the Goines’ bloodline weren’t so lucky. In late March of 1992, Donnie’s grandson was murdered, the sixth of six children killed in Detroit in the span of six days. For years the rumor persisted that Goines was killed while seated at his typewriter, and that he had been shot in the act of composition. The coroner’s report doesn’t bear this story out, but it’s easy enough to understand why this apocryphal tidbit survives into the present day.

Donald Goines was the longest longshot in literary history, even more so than Jim Tully or James Jones. He didn’t get past the ninth grade in his formal schooling, and he was involved in America’s formal warring overseas as well as the struggles of the street when he returned stateside. He was in prison for both the Detroit Riots and for that time in which many young black men were called up to go fight and die in Vietnam, so it’s possible he quite literally dodged more than a few bullets while seemingly doing everything in his power to chase other bullets down until they found him. He wrote more than a dozen novels, and did it despite the heavy burden of “Wong” remaining perched on his shoulder through his lifetime, from his teen years when he used a makeshift rig fashioned from an eyedropper and one of his mother’s insulin needles, all the way to the very end, when hopefully, he was too high to know what hit him.

Joseph Hirsch is the author of a dozen novels including Rolling Country, Kentucky Bestiary and Veterans' Affairs. His latest, Touch No One, will be published in spring 2017.

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