Saturday, May 3, 2014

Book Review: The Cool World

Book Review: 'The Cool World' by Warren Miller
5 / 5 Stars 

Warren Miller (1921 - 1966) wrote a number of novels that were published in the late 50s and early 60s. `The Cool World' was issued in hardback by Little, Brown and Co. in 1959; the same year, this Fawcett Premier paperback (160 pp) was released.

`Cool' comes from an era before concepts like `black English', `Ebonics', `rap', `gang-banging', and `hip-hop' existed. But all were present in primordial form, awaiting the rise of the Civil Rights movement, Black Power, and the advent of the culture of the black, urban underclass as a sociocultural phenomenon.

The entire narrative is told in the first-person, and in Ebonics:

"The reason summer time such a gas an a fake is because it come on like it gonna last for ever but you know it aint."

Despite being white and Jewish, author Miller expertly captures the argot of the Harlem streets in the late 50s, as if he, too, lived in the stifling, garbage-strewn tenements that housed his characters. This places `Cool' on par with the depictions of black life in the cities in the 50s and 60s authored by Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim, and Donald Goines. And it also seems as if `Cool' was the direct inspiration for Frank Bonham's classic 1965 young adult novel `Durango Street'.

The plot unfolds over the summer months, as Richard `Duke' Custis, member of the Royal Crocadiles gang, prepares for a decisive rumble with the neighborhood rivals, the Wolves. The situation is critical: the Wolves have been encroaching on Crocadiles' turf, and delivering brutal beatdowns on lone Crocs.

To make matters worse, the Crocadiles' leader, Blood, is losing his edge. It's up to Duke to take control and turn the disheartened Crocs into a fighting force. Because if the Crocs can't protect their turf, Harlem will no longer be safe for Duke, or any of his friends and fellow gang members....

The book consists of short ( 3- 8 pages in length) chapters, written in a declarative and unadorned prose, with a nod to the grand tradition of realistic American fiction pioneered by Stephen Crane, James T. Farrell, Hubert Selby, and Richard Price.

Interwoven with the main plot of preparing for the decisive rumble, are sub-plots dealing with the damaged characters drawn off the streets and into Duke's orbit. These address conflicts with family who simply don't realize the necessity of being in a gang; and the (politically incorrect !) exploitation of young black men as rent boys and male prostitutes, by white homosexuals.

`The Cool World' belongs in the library of anyone who enjoys a well-written novel about the American underclass, right there on the shelves alongside `Durango Street', `Last Exit to Brooklyn', `Hell Up In Harlem', and `The Wanderers'.

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