CALVIN WESTRA’S “DONALD GOINES” REVIEWED by Conor Hultman

How do you review a book like Donald Goines

To start, by answering a question with a question: How do you read a book like Donald Goines

It helps to read Donald Goines, specifically his book Dopefiend (Holloway House). Westra’s novel is a remake, sort-of. But before that, you should read Westra’s first book, Family Annihilator, also from Expat Press. In this order, it was like “shot-chaser-shot.” Or, more accurately, language-content-synthesis. Let me explain.

Westra has an effortlessly engaging manner of writing. Chapters are short, only a page or two, or less. Sentences are lean on syntax, subject and verb, not too many clauses. Dialogue is speedy back-and-forth, a question and an answer, or a line of information and its (often one-word) reaction. Characters are their name, their relationships to the other characters, a few quirks, and their abbreviated interior feelings. This isn’t barebones writing, it’s wireframe writing. What Westra does is this brilliant magic trick: he takes these simple sentences, with their insouciant humor, and stacks them like bricks. And he takes these half-characterized actors, and he makes them move forward, step by step, over the bricks. And he calls back to earlier bricks, here and there, until there’s a self-referential system. Before you know it, you’re looking at a complex superstructure of the same bricks, stacked into ingenious shapes, and you realize these unpainted characters were made for you to fill them, they are tools of suggestion to become, with your imagination, realer than a person. But, you look closer, and every brick is the same common brick. Toward the end of Family Annihilator, bricks like these are dropping on your tear ducts: “Oen went outside to the parking lot and texted her that he’d be outside and to take her time, he wasn’t in a hurry but he needed a little space to think and breathe and be alone.” One hundred-and-twenty pages, a couple of hours, and emotionally you feel like you’ve read a six hundred page epic. Like eating a three course dinner in a stick of gum. How did he do that?

Donald Goines (1936-1974) was a prolific Black writer of pulp urban fiction. He served in the Air Force, fought in the Korean War, came back to the States with a heroin addiction and turned to crime. After reading Iceberg Slim in prison, Goines started writing his own novels. He wrote sixteen books about street life, hustling, pimping, addiction, prostitution, violence, and the criminal underworld. Donald Goines and his wife, Shirley Sailor, were found shot to death in their apartment on October 21, 1974. The killers and their motives are unknown to this day. His novel Dopefiend is at once a tense crime thriller, a working class romantic tragedy, and a character-driven, day-in-the-life literary achievement. The characters are tropes: Terry, the girl from the right side of the tracks; Teddy, her well-meaning boyfriend from a bad home who gets caught up in heroin; Porky, the dopehouse boss with a debauched habit for getting women a habit of their own; the killer right-hand femme fatale, the hardworking father, the supporting cast of thieves and friends and bodyguards, etc etc. The plot is a classic tale of degeneration via vice into human bondage. What Goines does is fill up these tropes with enough interiority, backstory, observation, and spirit, all while keeping the thrum of the plot steady, so that the story, by parts an old one, is completely new. No opportunity is lost. A beat as simple as getting fired from work is expanded into a three-dimensional episode. A character as inconsequential as a would-be pimp is given a demeanor and a reason and a look, in short, a real life. Dopefiend is a gem, and Goines deserves a lot more celebration.

What Westra has done with his new novel is the greatest kind of literary tribute: to faithfully recreate the original in a new version, using it as a foundation for its own artistic scaffolding, a knowing simulation that diverges seamlessly. It is another generative self-reference system, but one simultaneously overlaid onto and discrete from its source. Westra uses the language perfected in Family Annihilator in the content mold of Dopefiend to create an avant-garde synthesis: Donald Goines. The basic setup of Goines’ book is retained, and most of the plot. The characters are there, with new names; Porky has become “the pig,” Terry is Dunie, Teddy is Honduran Emerald. Westra reformats this general story into his stripped down, egoless and sharp vision. The opening of Dopefiend, a slow-burn ten pages introducing Porky (“black and horribly fat…with small, red, reptilian eyes,” “a fat freak with good dope”), his drug den, and the acts of depravity that go on there, all get filtered by Westra into this:

 

 “The first thing to know about the pig is he will jack off in front of you.

Also, he sells drugs so good you’ll let him do it. You’d be an idiot to say 

something.”

 

That’s the first chapter of Donald Goines in its entirety. Really, that’s all that’s needed for 

the setting. The original’s proletariat minimalism is made into a smaller miniature, bitcrushed, and it still works. Where Westra improvises is brilliant. There are rare bird aliases (“Orange Bellied Parrot” and the aforementioned “Honduran Emerald”), and discourses on Japanese puppet theater. Proper nouns are filed off; the electronic store is called “Radios,” church is “Gods,” and so on. Addicts are cutting their arms open to put “drugs” inside to get high, supposedly the same “drugs” they also smoke. In the grandest gesture, every other proper name is “Donald Goines.” As in, “Donald Goines brand cognac” (“a complex and aromatic alternative to say Remy or something”). Or, “Donald Goines brand soft drink” (“a refreshing alternative to Coke or Pepsi”). Or, “Donald Goines High” (“Go tigers”). Much like Family Annihilator used its bricks to play with a frame narrative, Donald Goines is a skilled adaptation and a commentary on adaptation intertwined. More than a dedication, more than a headnod, Donald Goines salutes its namesake by being a successful experiment. It is one of a half-dozen or less unorthodox novels to come out this year that have a heart, and for that reason people will continue to read it. When they do, they will be intrigued by the title, the significance of whose omnipresence in the novel is not inside its self-reference system. Readers will search “Donald Goines” on the Internet and discover his works for themselves. This, Donald Goines has accomplished without hewing too close to Dopefiend. Westra can definitely be read alone; his version has all the mundane tragedy of the original, no necessary allusions, with his patented sardonicisms and charm. It’s a book you can read in an afternoon, but that you’ll want to loan out and get back and talk about and read again. This is a remake like Ulysses is to Homer. Genius in service of genius. Read Donald Goines. Read Donald Goines!


Conor Hultman lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

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