I was looking at my bookshelf and all the books gathering dust. Its funny the way we hoard stuff for the sake of it, as once read I never pick these books up again. I figured I would start re-visiting some of the books I have read over the years. The other night I got my copy of Herbert Simmons Corner Boy down and started to read it.
Corner Boy was Herbert Simmons first novel and won the prestigious 1957 Houghton Mifflen Literary Fellowship. I would imagine a novel that encompassed drugs, poverty, racism and race mixing written by a then only 26 year old black man was a fairly controversial choice for the time. 5 years later Simmons second novel Man Walking on Eggshells was released to critical acclaim. Unfortunately influential people in both the power elite and amongst the black community managed to put pressure on the publisher and “upstart” Simmons found his second novel effectively buried. Aged just 31 and having written two “Great American novels”, Simmons never published another. In the 1960’s he became involved in the Watts writers workshop and in the mid 1990’s he retired from a teaching post at California State University Northridge.
Set in an unknown US city, although I suspect heavily influenced by Simmons experiences growing up in St. Lois Missouri. Corner Boy tells of the rise and fall of Jake Adams. Jake is the former president of notorious teen gang “The Termites” known as the “T’s”, whose rumbles with the “Ratz” a teen gang from across the tracks on the other side of town are the stuff of legend. Now out of the gang and just 18 he finds himself pushing dope for "The Organization". Jake's smart car, fancy clothes and luck with the women make him the envy of his peers and elders alike. As Jake whiles away his time hanging with his hustler friends in the Jazz drenched pool rooms and music halls of the 1940’s life is good. Until one day he is stopped by the local police with a white girl in his car …
I imagine some people will look at the description and think this should be written off as crime glamorising “Ghetto” fiction. Simmons book how ever is much deeper, much more skillful and much more powerful, in its study of what it means to fight for the American dream with one arm tied behind your back. While the characters and setting is almost entirely one of a black American (African American, if you prefer) it’s not such a world away from the experience of living in poverty for any other race including the poor white experience.
Jake (Black): ‘Yeh, but you know what? I bet there ain’t much difference in our worlds. I bet you got corner boys, gash hounds, and everything else, in fact I know you have. Well you got a dividing line that gives you more opportunities, but that’s about all. I mean everybody loves and hates and has babies and pulls creeps …”
Jake: ‘Yeh sneaks in the back door when the ole man goes out the front. And everybody gets bills and go to church and don’t believe in it, and drinks whisky or shoots themselves with the plunger, and everybody lives and dies, don’t they?’
Georgia:’ But don’t you think those opportunities mean a whole lot?’
Jake: ‘Yeah they make a difference, whatever difference there is.’
In fact the world Simmons evokes around his young characters reminded me heavily of the world S.E. Hinton’s novels for young adults, The Outsiders and in particular Rumble Fish portray. Jake Adams could almost be one of the sharp black pool players Rusty James encounters when he and Steve travel across town with the Motor cycle boy. Simmons prose is fantastic the way he infuses the slang, the music, and the feel of the 1940’s almost leaves you able to see, hear and almost even smell the scene. The characters are so three dimensional as he evokes their dreams, their failings, their troubles and their joy’s. His characters internal and external thoughts and turmoil is laid bare before you. For those capable of a thought pattern deeper than just good and bad, wrong and right, black and white you really get to thinking about just how many shades of grey there really are.
Picking up corner boy again after all this time I had forgotten its true content and settled down for a thriller following the rise and fall of a small time gangster. What I found myself immersed in was a thought provoking tale that covers almost the full range of human emotions and experience. Bravado, love, success, failure, Joy, tragedy, Prejudice, snobbery, hatred, belief and many more find themselves wrapped up in a thought provoking package and set to prose that almost matches the rhythm of the Jazz soundtrack Simmons evokes.
Maybe the greatest and at the same time saddest thing about Corner boy, is that it reminded me that no matter how much things seem to change, just how much really stays the same in the human condition.