September 22, 2013KR BlogEnthusiamsReadingRemembrancesWriting

Relentless: Moose Tracks and Donald Goines

I’m a binge ice cream eater, partial to Moose Tracks. For a long time, I favored chocolate. But late one night a couple years back, after my companion and kids had nodded out, I recalled a short relationship I’d had in Nashville with a woman from Alabama whose living room showcased, centered over the sofa, a framed portrait of Bear Bryant. The woman’s name, miraculously, it seemed to me then, was Dixie Lee. Nights, Dixie would escort me from her bedroom to her kitchen, where she kept stashed in her freezer half-gallons of Moose Tracks. All night we’d go, bedroom, kitchen, bedroom, kitchen, one pleasure center to the other. We hardly slept.

The recollection triggered desire, and so I rushed to Kroger. In the car after the buy, with a white plastic spoon one of my kids had gnawed and thrown to the floorboard, I worked through a pint. It was my first Moose Tracks in a decade and a half. I hustled back inside and bought a half-gallon. Driving home with it between my thighs, I felt vaguely wrong. But I’ve felt on a pretty continuous basis, in multitudes of forms and fashions, both vaguely and specifically wrong since I can remember. I sat at my kitchen table and wolfed that ice cream down.

Tonight, two years later, companion and kids long asleep, I find myself on the couch, reading Donald Goines’s Black Girl Lost and lifting from yellow plastic bowl to gaping mouth heaping spoonfuls of Moose Tracks. It seems as appropriate a response to Goines as any other. In Black Girl Lost‘s opening scene, Goines offers us, on the streets of Los Angeles, a shivering, nearly starved, mostly abandoned girl named Sandra. While searching for her mother, the girl is seduced by the promise of a meal into a man’s car. The rest of the chapter details the man’s advances and retreats, his desire fighting his conscience. Deep into the encounter, the man asks, “’How old are you, child?’

‘Eight,’ she replied, with a mouth full of pie.

[….] The man took another swig from the bottle, then dropped his hand down on her leg. He slowly ran it up her small thigh, feeling the heat that had now replaced the cold. [….] They sat in the car quietly, Sandra enjoying the heat, while the man allowed himself the small pleasure of rubbing the young girl’s leg. His hand moved higher under the thin dress.”

One thing art can do is upend. For example, in Lolita, I feel for Humbert Humbert. Which is why the book was banned. The danger is not that Lolita depicts pedophilia but that Nabokov’s artistry brings me—me, the father of a young girl—in concord with a pedophile. Notwithstanding a half century of literary debates over whether I, the reader, am myself seduced by Humbert Humbert, such a concord calls into question everything I’ve been taught, ever. This is an annihilating proposition for any authority, ensuring, eventually, the demise of that authority.

But is Black Girl Lost art? Must it be, in order to upend? I mean, Why so privileged, Art?

Goines wrote 16 novels between 1971 and 1974, all of them gritty narratives featuring pimps and prostitutes, drug dealers and addicts, drunks, bootleggers, numbers runners, hit men, murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and other unsavory types. At the time, his books were marketed as Black Experience Novels; today, the genre is called Urban Street Fiction, or, in its less grisly versions, just Urban Fiction. To many, including Nas and Jay Z, Goines is a godfather of contemporary hip hop culture. One reason is that he kept it real, living the life depicted in his novels. One consequence of that, however, is that in 1974, in his Detroit apartment, along with the mother of his one-year-old daughter, Goines was shot to death.

Goines’s first published book was Dopefiend, an account of the relationship between junkie and dealer. Goines had been trying to write Westerns, a popular genre amongst his fellow prisoners, but with little success. Then, in 1969, while serving a sentence in Michigan, he came across Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of My Life and Trick Baby, both of which would go on to become seminal texts for Urban Street Fiction. Slim’s success taught Goines that there was a market for what he knew about—the drug life, crime, the streets, prison—and a form to contain it. Goines quickly set to novelizing his own stories. Wildly popular from the outset, none of his books have ever gone out of print. The paperback edition of Black Girl Lost that I’m reading now was published in 2008. It boasts on its cover, a full thirty-four years after Goines’s death: America’s #1 Best Selling Black Author.

When Sandra, in Black Girl Lost, enters the man’s car, I’m prepared for pedophilia, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. This is, after all, the first scene in the book. Surely Goines is toying with me, raising my blood pressure only to relieve it so that he can raise it again, a little higher, later on. Surely he will build to the horrific crimes: it’s hard to top, in the horrific crimes department, child rape. So I’m expecting, really, Sandra to escape. But what happens is more nuanced, and more creepy, than either of those scenarios. By mid-scene, in fact, sucked in, I’ve become willing to pull an all-nighter.

But Black Girl Lost is, as a whole, it turns out, less nuanced than that first scene. The novel becomes relentless, a series of horrors, each horror (possibly) worse than the horror preceding it: 1. pedophilia from a man who at least seems to care about you; 2. having as a mother the kind who screams, when one day in the third grade you tell her you can’t go to school because you are too hungry, “What the fuck you think I am, a money tree? Hell, you ain’t no little spoiled white kid. [….] I know you, you little bitch”; 3. being gangraped after watching the only-person-who-loves-you get beaten almost to death by a gang of cops and dragged off to jail; 4. having to minister, at 16, to the dying only-one-who-loves-you as he bleeds out; and 5. having to shove, as the police crash through the door, a butcher knife into the heart (twice) of the (already bleeding out) only-one-who-loves-you.

A scholar notes that while Goines was not a strong novelist, still, he produced the most “sustained, realistic, multi-faceted, widespread fictional picture ever created by one author of the lives, activities, and frustrations of poor urban Blacks.”

Goines was no artist, it’s true. He didn’t need to be. He was, instead, relentless, and his vision almost unbearably true: Black Girl Lost insists, as does, so far as we know, the universe, that no one gets out alive. Goines’s universe just happens to be the American ghetto of the Seventies.