RARA-AVIS: Whoreson

Bill Hagen (billha@ionet.net)
Mon, 31 May 1999 00:41:45 -0500 (CDT) _Whoreson_ is an easy read, a straightforward kind of narrative, a "life
and times" in first person that holds interest. As I said earlier, it
reminds me of early novels, fictions that pretended to be "histories" of
individuals, often criminals who lived by their wits and conned their way
through different levels of society. Typically, in these "picaresque"
novels, the lurid story was in the form of a memoir or confession,
supposedly meant to warn the young away from such a life; often too, these
lives ended rather well for their tellers, sort of contradicting the
supposed message.

I enjoyed _Whoreson_ on that level, learning about life in the red light
districts as of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In spite of the cover
blurb, "sudden violence and brutal sex," it's a world that seems somewhat
orderly, with certain moral codes. The narrator acts according to the pimp
code he understands, and has the ability to learn from his mistakes. I
would expect that the world Goines describes, and the slang he uses, have
been transformed in the last 30 years so much that his book is already
historical--the fate of anything so documentary as this novel. We trust
his accuracy, in part because the narrator has little sense of distance
from himself as a character. The power of the book, for me, was in its
candidness, what it documented; if the subject matter, the character types,
the standard behaviors had been of little interest, the novel wouldn't have
held me, since there was little mystery, suspense, or sustained conflict.

SPOILER ALERT--talking about the ending here.

...which leads me to a couple of dissatisfactions about the ending. First,
to bring it off, Goines completely switched point of view (fr. first to
3rd) for one chapter. I guess neither he nor his editor/publisher were
able to negotiate another way. Second, to bring it off he had to pull a
couple of very old rabbits out of the hat: the good girl with wealth who
loyally waits, like Sophia for Tom Jones, until the major character
reforms; and the hard case who discovers a heart, is redeemed by the love
of a good woman, and looks forward to respectable family life when he gets
out--this latter in last three pages. Oh my. Another instance of the
"best of all possible" endings that Voltaire had such fun mocking in
_Candide_. Noir it is not.

I enjoyed it, but will turn to the more substantial Chester Hines or Walter
Mosley or August Wilson or Richard Wright for future narratives of ghetto
life. The back cover blurb pushes Goines as an authentic "voice of the
ghetto," to distinguish him from these popular black writers, who appeal
to white, middle class readers. But that's a bit of a con, since Goines
writes sentences that are quite respectably styled and structured,
according to middle class standards of literacy.

Sorry for this length, but I'm hitting the road and will not get to count
the eggs and burn marks for bit.

Bill Hagen

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