(1945) is Chester Himes's first published novel. Set in Los Angeles during World War II, the novel is narrated in the first person by its African American protagonist, Bob Jones. Himes based details of his novel on his own experiences working in shipyards in both Oakland and Los Angeles in the 1940s. Written in a style many critics find similar to 1930s and 1940s American hard-boiled or tough-guy fiction, the book chronicles five working days in Bob's life, framed by a vision of urban Los Angeles. Other critics see the novel as more closely aligned with a tradition of protest novels, and notably, as being a literary descendant of Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) and Ann Petry's The Street (1946).
Bob Jones is an intellectual who continually reflects on the ways his options and his actions are circumscribed by the overall systemic violence of American racism. The reader also sees a graphic picture of 1940s Los Angeles, a city fraught with racial conflict as a result of the large influx of white Southerners and African American workers coming to labor in the defense industries. Though Bob is a leadman in the Atlas Shipyard, supervising a crew of African American workers, his actual authority is ineffective since white leadmen refuse to assist him by loaning their white workers to him for job projects.
One such white worker is Madge Perkins. After Madge calls Bob a nigger he returns the insult and is immediately demoted, while she goes unpunished. Through Bob's interactions with and thoughts about Madge, the novel exposes the complex intersections of race and sexual attraction as Bob at once despises and desires Madge.
When Bob accidentally encounters Madge in a small deserted bunkroom, his impulse is to flee, but he hesitates a bit too long. Madge locks the door and screams “rape,” thereby inciting the furor of the white workers. Bob escapes lynching but is sentenced by a judge to enlist in the armed forces. Himes points out the irony in U.S. soldiers, many of them African American, being sent abroad to fight fascism in Europe while racial oppression flourishes at home.
Counterposed to Madge's uncouth nature is Bob's girlfriend, Alice Harrison, a social worker and the daughter of one of the wealthiest African American men in Los Angeles. She has no sympathy for Bob's feelings of racial oppression and encourages Bob to stop struggling against white people and instead carve out an upper-middle-class domestic niche within the bounds of societal discrimination. This type of compromise is precisely what Bob cannot do. Himes's critique of such compromises is visible in his portrayal of Alice's father as corrupt and venal.
Bob Jones is represented as an everyman who desires nothing more and nothing less than equal participation in the democratic ideals he was taught as a boy in school. For Himes, Bob's naive belief in the promise of such ideals creates his angst as an adult living in a racist culture.
Gilbert H. Muller, Chester Himes, 1989.Michel Fabre, Robert E. Skinner, and Lester Sullivan, Chester Himes: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography, 1992.
Related content in Oxford Index
Chester Himes (1909—1984)