photo by Will White
Shifting between different points of view requires skill. This is something of a truism in writing. There are many who try and fail. The ones who succeed make it seem like they are writing out a laundry list. Their work appears effortless. Today I want to make a case for adding Chester Himes to that small group of writing who can and do shift successfully from one point of view to another.
Chester Himes wrote a series of noir fiction novels in the 1950s and 60s. Set in Harlem Coffin Ed Jones and Gravedigger Johnson work as detectives for the New York City police department. Mordant and fatalistic Chester Himes described a world shot through with racism and classicism that neither Dashiell Hammett nor Raymond Chandler seemed to notice.
Himes creates a kind opening wide shot with a description of the bitter cold and then settles on a medium shot of the man he names “joker” at work, a man stealing tires from a car on Convent Avenue. He needs two tires and has managed to remove one.
“He had the inside wheel jacked up on the slanting street, making the car tilt dangerously. But he was unconcerned. He worked swiftly, without light.”
A passing car halts his efforts, a Cadillac that looks as though it’s made of solid gold. The joker sees the passengers as a result of the illuminated dash panel. What he sees disturbs him.
“The joker’s heart gave a lurch. There was something shockingly familiar about the face. But it was impossible for his own true Sassafras to be riding about in a brand-new Caddy with two strange men at this hour of the night.”
The joker then witnesses the Cadillac hit an old lady crossing the street, or so he thinks. Within moments she is up on all fours, laughing. Just when he and we think she is safe, a black Buick carrying three uniformed police officers hits her square in the bum and sends her to her doom.
Himes continues on with the use of third-person close. The joker becomes disoriented from what he has just observed. The first car wheel he removed brings him back to reality and off he goes, rolling the wheel in front of him.
Now here is where Himes shows us a nifty trick for moving from third-person close to third-person omniscient from within the scene. He doesn’t tell us, he shows us. And he shows us using the motion of the tire.
The Joker flees the scene of the murder with his single tire in front of him. He pushes it away from what has just happened but loses control of the tire as he descends down a hill. The wheel takes a huge bounce in the direction of two police officers. Here our narrator must leave, as he doesn’t want to tangle with the police.
From this point to the end of the chapter, Himes moves to third-person omniscient and uses the wheel as the point of action to weave his descriptions.
“The wheel kept on down the street and knocked the legs out from underneath the two cops, knocked down a lady coming from the supermarket with a bag full of groceries, swerved out into the street, passed through the traffic oaf 125th Street without touching a thing, bounced over the sidewalk and crashed through the street-level door of a tenement facing the start of Convent Avenue. A heavy-set, middle-aged man wearing a felt skull cap, old mended sweater, corduroy pants and felt slippers, was emerging from the back apartment when the wheel crashed into the back wall of the hallway. He gave it a look, then did a double take. He looked about quickly, and, seeing no one, grabbed it, ducked back into his apartment and locked the door. It wasn’t every day manna fell from heaven.”
From this point Himes moves into third-person omniscient. Masterful, simply masterful.
I probably would have just started the next chapter in third-person omniscient because I’m no Chester Himes. Thankfully he is a fantastic teacher, and this opening shift from third-person close to third-person omniscient is now a permanent instrument in my writing tool box.