Donald Goines Superstar

Career criminal, addict and prison novelist

by Jean Charbonneau

I've spent the past few months in prison. I'm not a bank robber, I was not put behind bars for possession with intent to distribute, I have not been sentenced to five years for securities fraud. I'm a librarian, and I've been working for the Maryland Department of Correction. About fifteen miles south of Baltimore, where I live, the Jessup correctional complex is a sprawling network of massive old red buildings and guard towers enclosed in thirty-foot high chain-link fences and World War I-like snarls of concertina wires. It's a sort of gulag right in the middle of Maryland.

On my first day at the maximum-security prison known as the Cut I feel safe in the library. Strangely, there's no tightness in my chest or in my throat. My mouth is not dry and my palms are not sweaty. No trembling, no nausea, no rapid heartbeat. individuals. I feel safe probably because I realize that I'm not seen as the oppressor by the inmates, as part of the tyrannical system that is the Division of Corrections, at least from their perspective. The correctional officers certainly are considered as such. Librarians, on the other hand, are providers of books and information, which are valuable commodities. Moreover, I'm not wearing a uniform, I'm not carrying a truncheon, and I have no impact on the convicts' sentences; I have nothing to do with their parole hearings, or the circumstances of their life in jail.

On that first day a young man came in the library wanting to know if we had books on symbols. He wore an Afro and there was a large knife scar on his left forearm. Soon we were chatting about books and literature, some of my favorite authors and his. I talked to him about William Faulkner and he'd never read Faulkner. He also didn't know about Franz Kafka, and he'd read only one Hemingway story ("The Killers," perhaps appropriately enough). He said he'd like to read more of Hemingway's stuff, and that he would check out Faulkner and Kafka.

I had high hopes. Maybe the Jessup Prison libraries would become the setting for my literary salon.

If things didn't exactly turn out this way, I did find myself in the role of literary consegliere for very many inmates.

A guy wanted to know if we had any "new books that are good," and I handed him David Schickler's Sweet and Vicious.

Another convict wanted a novel about vampires or werewolves ("I love that kind of stuff, man."), and I suggested Tristan Egolf's Kornwolf, hoping the man would read something a bit better than Dracula's Sadistic Wife. But after leafing through the novel's pages, he put it back on the shelf and went for a Laurell K. Hamilton, a leader of the vampire genre.

And a couple of weeks ago, a young inmate walked into the library. Half-kid, half-thug, he was wearing a white sleeveless t-shirt that showed the gigantic scar running across the back of his right shoulder. "Got anything on comedy?" he asked.

"You mean like books by Chris Rock or—"

"No, man . . . I mean, funny novels."

He didn't leave me time to answer and said, "Got any murder books?"

I looked at him and said, "From comedy to murder, eh?"

He cracked a smile.

He was lucky. No one had yet noticed our one-and-only copy of a Donald Goines novel. I gave it to him.

I say lucky because Donald Goines is bar none the most popular writer among inmates. Over and over again I'm being asked if we have his novels.

Goines was born and raised in Detroit. He was a heroin addict and a career criminal—pimping, robbing, stealing, bootlegging, and running numbers. He must have been pretty horrible at his trade, since he received seven different sentences that totaled over six years. In jail he came across the novels of Robert Beck (aka Iceberg Slim), a pimp-novelist who was also incarcerated many times and wrote wild depictions of the Chicago black crime scene in the 1940's and 50's in novels such as Doom Fox, Death Wish, and Trick Baby.

Inspired, Goines began writing himself and his first two novels were concocted behind bars. He was released in 1970 and, according to the legend, worked hard in the morning in order to devote the rest of the day to his heroin habit. What's certain is that the man's writing pace was frantic; he produced fifteen books in five years. The circumstances of his death, in October 1974, are straight out of his own fiction. He and his wife were gunned down in their homes in the Detroit section of Highland Park. The perpetrators were never identified. The man was thirty-six years old.

Goines wrote about pimps, hit men, prostitutes, drug dealers, thieves, self-loathing thugs with a very short fuse, and other such savory characters; his stories were set in the black inner city of Los Angeles, New York, and mostly Detroit. The novels are executed using the language of the street, with fast pacing and short, easy-to-read sentences.

Here's the opening paragraph of his debut novel Dopefiend:

     The voices inside the flat were loud as the argument continued. Porky, black and horribly fat, stared around his domain with small read, reptilian eyes. His apartment was his castle. His world consisted of the narrow confines of the four walls that surrounded him. In his huge armchair he would sit watching the drug addicts come and go. They entertained him, not intentionally, but nevertheless they did. When they came to his shooting gallery and begged for credit, it gave him the feeling of power. With the women addicts he enjoyed himself even more. When they were short of money, his fiendish mind came up with newer and more abnormal acts for them to entertain him with.

So there you are: the clichéd writing, the simplistic prose, and the predictable, schlocky setup. But the fact that convicts keep on reading his books tells me that it's genuine, that the stories Goines told and the characters he created resonate with people who know all about the milieu portrayed.

In reality, Goines's novels have sold between five and ten millions copies, and after being one of the most popular black pulp fiction writers of his day, he's become a sort of cult hero for the hip hop generation. Goines is often referred to in rap songs, including those of Tupac Shakur (Tradin' War Stories: "Machiavelli was my tutor, Donald Goines my father figure"), Nas (Escobar '97: "Eldorado Red, sipping Dom out of the bottle/My life is like a Donald Goines novel"), and Ludacris (Eyebrows Down: "So I picked up a couple books from Donald Goines/About the business of this shit and how to flip a few coins).

Also, Goines's novel Never Die Alone was made into a movie in 2004, starring the rapper DMX and David Arquette and directed by Ernest Dickerson, Spike Lee's longtime cinematographer. The movie, which transposes Goines's story into the early 21st century, isn't much more than an orgy of violence and, frankly, I find the hip-hop posturing tiresome after a short while. Still, the energy of the original work is palpable.

Goines has even surpassed his role model in popularity, though Iceberg Slim has also been an important influence on hip-hop artists. As a matter of fact, Ice-T and Ice Cube adopted their names in part from reading Goines's model.

Surprisingly, Goines's novels have penetrated the mainstream and even the academic world, with some university literature programs including his work into their curriculum. One of these classes is called "Crime and Punishment in American Literature," given by Professor H. Bruce Franklin at Rutgers University in Newark, author of Prison Literature in America: The Victim as Criminal and Artist (1989), as good an anthology as you'll find in this genre.

Goines has enjoyed some success abroad as well. In France, he's received critical acclaim, and some of his novels, including White Man's Justice, Black Man's Grief (Justice blanche, misè re noire), have found their way into the prestigious Série noire collection (along with many other U.S. crime writers, such as David Goodis, Jim Thompson and Margaret Millar). But then again, the French intelligentsia always had a collective hard-on for anything that has to do with American gangsters.

All of Goines books are hard-hitting, sexually explicit, graphically detailed, political, and polemical. They're at once awful and fascinating, edgy and extreme, and raw in all the hopeless reality they describe, the rundown buildings, the corrupt cops, the pushers, the hustlers, the whores, the junkies. Here's an excerpt of Whoreson: The Story of a Ghetto Pimp:

     Jessie, a tall black woman with high, narrow cheekbones, stepped from a trick's car holding her stomach. Her dark piercing eyes were flashing with anger. She began cursing the driver, using the vilest language imaginable about his parents and the nature of his birth. The driver, blushing with shame, drove away, leaving her behind in the falling snow. Slush from the spinning tires spattered her as she held onto a parked car for support. She unconsciously rubber her hand across her face to wipe away the tears that mingled with the snowflakes.

I can't help thinking that Goines's writing style partly explains his success. The vast majority of inmates possess only very basic reading skills, and Goines's prose never comes close to getting in the way of the story. Goines himself was no Rhodes Scholar, but had enough wits to write his novels in a language that the very characters he depicted would speak and understand, thus reaching a vast audience.

The Goines book I'm reading right now is White Man's Justice, Black Man's Grief, which is set in Detroit's infamous City Jail and the state penitentiary in Jackson, Michigan. The main character is Chester Hines (a wink at fellow black crime writer Chester Himes, author of the truculent Yesterday Will Make You Cry—1953), and the novel is a scorching portrait of prison life, the racial inequities of the judicial system, the convicts' code inside, the maddening promiscuity, the abject food, the rape parties, the abuse of power on the part of the authorities. All this is told with of good dose of cynicism, homophobia, and misogynous slants. It's Crime and Punishment retold by Tupac Shakur with the help of Malcolm X, Jimi Hendrix, and Richard Wright:

     There was another farcical endeavor the men went through, going to the trouble of having their people go out and buy them brand new suits to court. Courts never took into consideration what the men had on. They could appear in sacks, for all the judges cared. The only thing that mattered was the color of the man, plus what he was charged with. The men going to court never bothered to think that the money their mothers and wives had to spend on them could be used for something else. Put food on tables that had seen more than their share of black-eyed peas and navy beans—without meat. Yet theses same women had to figure out a way to buy their loved ones a suit, a good suit at that . . . They sacrificed everything under the misguided belief that it would help. How could it? What could help against the poisonous pus of double-standard justice, racial bigotry, and the demand for black men to fill the work quotas?

No wonder Goines's stuff touches such a chord in convicts.

We all read fiction either to be taken away from what is familiar to us or, on the contrary, to be immersed into what we know best, giving us a sense of belonging. That would be especially true, I imagine, if incarceration prevented you from leading the life you are used to. Goines's novels painstakingly describe life on the streets and speak directly to prison inmates. Living vicariously through Goines's criminals would be awesome for them. For whoever doesn't know about street life in the American ghetto, however, these lurid tales are downright surreal.

Jean Charbonneau

Jean Charbonneau is In Posse Review's editor-in-chief.