For much of the 1950s and ’60s Donald Goines prowled the streets of Detroit as just another lowlife. He had seven children but never married. He used heroin, stole, gambled, pimped, and made bootleg whiskey. But his game wasn’t smooth enough, and he served several prison terms. Then, inspired by a novel by a Chicago hustler, Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck, Goines began writing fiction.
In the early 70s he completed 16 books, most of them violent, semiautobiographical accounts of crime in the hood. He’d achieved cult status by 1974, the year two gunmen murdered him and his common-law wife. At the funeral a relative put one of his books, Daddy Cool, on his chest, but just before the casket was closed someone stole it. Goines’s mother said she hoped the thief would read it and learn something.
Goines, who was only 36 when he died, achieved something that has eluded many more-accomplished black authors, including James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston–his popularity has never diminished. His publisher, LA-based Holloway House, claims to have sold more than 5,000,000 of his books, none of which has ever gone out of print. Three years ago Jay-Z, DMX, and other rappers recorded a CD inspired by Black Gangster, and a DVD based on Crime Partners–starring Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, and Ja Rule–debuts in three months. Holloway House recently sold film-option rights to seven other novels.
Goines was born in 1937, the second of three children and the only son. His middle-class parents, Joseph and Myrtle, owned a dry-cleaning business. According to Eddie Stone’s 1974 biography Donald Writes No More, other children sometimes ridiculed him for his light skin, but for the most part his childhood was happy. He attended Catholic elementary school, watched westerns on TV, and pitched in sandlot baseball games. His parents wanted him to finish school and work in the family business, but he was more attracted by the local pimps, prostitutes, gamblers, and thieves. By the time he was 13, he was shoplifting and fencing clothes, gambling, and smoking marijuana. His father equipped a room above the dry-cleaning plant with a pool table and record player to keep Donald and his friends off the streets, but they used it as a base for their operations. Father and son argued about where he was headed, and when Donald was 15 he dropped out of high school, got a fake ID, and enlisted in the air force.
According to a 1975 Detroit Free Press article, while serving in Japan and Korea in the early 50s, Goines acquired what eventually became a $100-a-day heroin habit. The only time he would ever break it was when he was in prison. He urged others to avoid drugs and once shot up in front of his 12-year-old sister to scare her away from using. A friend recalled him yelling at kids who went near drug houses.
In 1955 he returned to Detroit and for a while stole clothes and groceries to support his habit. That summer he took up pimping and two years later had to flee town when a rival pimp threatened his family. He moved from Flint to Kansas City, Missouri, to Junction City, Kansas, where he was arrested in 1958.
Three years later he was back in Detroit, where he and three other men robbed a numbers house. Stone writes that during the robbery a woman begged Goines to let her go tend to her crying baby. He did, and she called the police. He spent a year in a federal penitentiary.
In the mid-60s he spent another year in federal prison for making illegal hooch. His mind cleared once he had no access to heroin, and he wrote his first book, a western. The ’67 Detroit riots–during which 43 blacks died, 1,189 suffered injuries, and 7,231 landed in jail–made him think harder about social issues, but it didn’t keep him from getting in trouble and spending 90 days in jail for larceny.
In 1969 he was back in state prison, again for larceny. As he withdrew from heroin again, he realized that the police knew so well how he operated that it would be hard for him to go back to hustling. He decided he would try to provide for himself and his new girlfriend, Shirley Sailor, by writing.
According to the Free Press article, Myrtle Goines took a typewriter to the prison, and her son taught himself to type, did writing exercises, and read Trick Baby, Iceberg Slim’s 1967 novel about a biracial grifter in Bronzeville. Then he started spinning his own tale, using his own knowledge of the streets, about a light-skinned pimp’s rise and fall. Another inmate read the manuscript and told him to send it to Iceberg Slim’s publisher, Holloway House. Goines shipped Whoreson off in August 1970, and one month later the editors accepted it and asked for more of his work. That October he sent them Dopefiend, about the misadventures of several drug addicts.
Goines had become part of a wave of African-Americans who wrote gritty urban novels, including Chester Himes; Clarence Cooper Jr., a Detroiter who also used drugs; and Chicago native Odie Hawkins. Goines’s books also came out around the time such hugely popular blaxploitation films as Shaft and Superfly were being released.
The novels feature basic plots, high body counts, and explicit sex. His writing ability was only average–for one thing, he consistently violated the “show, don’t tell” rule. His portraits of people and their situations can be grotesque, though he made several of his female characters sympathetic. Hard-core themes, similar to those that later fueled the work of gangster rappers, inform his books: Life is cheap in the ghetto. Cops are no good. People are capable of the worst acts. Drugs destroy lives. What comes around goes around. The mixture made for page-turners.
One of Goines’s more evil creations is King David in Never Die Alone. This gangster, who’s amassed $50,000 selling drugs in LA, writes in a diary that he wants to return to New York but doesn’t want to leave behind a strung-out girlfriend who knows his racket. He has sex with her, then gives her heroin mixed with battery acid. Her demise rates an entry: “Her mouth opened as if she wanted to scream, but no sound came. She rubbed wildly at her arm as she snatched the outfit out, then fell over onto her side. She kicked once or twice, then she was perfectly still. I walked over and looked down at her. Snot poured from her nose and a long stream of it fell down on her chin. Her legs were wet from where her bowels had busted on her. As I stared down at her, a lump of shit came running down her leg. I looked at it and the thought flashed through my mind that she wasn’t so fuckin’ fine after all.”
Some people recoiled at the explicitness, but according to Stone’s biography, those who lived on Detroit’s streets respected Goines’s talent. “He was becoming something of a spokesman, something of a cult hero among the people he was writing about,” Stone wrote. “The popularity of his books rested on the fact that his readership could relate directly to the life which Goines recreated on paper. They knew the pimps, whores, pushers, dealers, criminals and murderers who appeared in Donald’s books. He was speaking their language, and he was becoming a celebrity doing it.”
In a phone interview last year Donald Goines Jr., a 38-year-old aspiring writer in the Motor City, told me, “I hear some people tell their kids they should not read this garbage. That’s when I know they are misinterpreting. It’s very educational for teenagers. Before they get started doing anything in the streets they’ll see what the consequences will be in the end. The reality is, no matter how good it looks, in the end it’s tragedy.”
Tragedy dominates Daddy Cool, in which the title character–who owns a pool hall, run by his close friend Big Earl, and lives in a fashionable neighborhood with his wife and three kids–carries out hits by throwing a knife. He teaches his daughter Janet, his favorite, how to fling a blade. When she runs away with a pimp, Big Earl searches for the pair, and when he finds their apartment he breaks the pimp’s neck. The cops walk into the building just as Big Earl leaves, and one of the officers shoots him. Daddy Cool arrives, and Janet, thinking he’s arranged the pimp’s murder, takes out a knife. He knows his time is up, and as she throws the knife, he pulls his own out, thinking that will let her claim she killed him in self-defense.
In Dopefiend Goines presents the nightmarish world of drug addicts. Terry, a department-store clerk, starts using heroin when her addict boyfriend takes her with him on a buy. The dealer, Porky, strings her along with free samples until she’s hooked. Eventually she loses her car and her job, gets thrown out of her parents’ house, and starts turning tricks.
Porky is Goines’s most repugnant creation–an indication of how much he hated drug dealers. An overweight man with beady eyes, Porky runs a tight operation out of a filthy apartment where addicts shoot up. He masturbates in his armchair while a customer hikes up her skirt in front of everyone as she tries to find a suitable vein. The blood and pus flowing from sores on her legs don’t bother him. Later he forces a pregnant customer to have sex with a German shepherd for heroin. Humiliated, she hangs herself. Porky doesn’t use drugs. He gets his kicks by giving an overdose to two men who robbed him. “Porky drew the rest of the heroin up in the dropper,” Goines writes. “The terror he saw in Lennie’s eyes was intoxicating; the mere thought of Lennie lying there, completely at his mercy, was better than any drug on the market.”
Goines pumped out his books quickly, writing in the morning after scoring smack. In a 1973 journal entry he wrote, “If I don’t fix, my mind comes to a standstill….I can’t write at this stage of my life without drugs.” According to the 1975 Free Press article, he racked up advances of $800 to $1,000 and a royalty of 7.5 cents per book sold. In 1974 Holloway published eight of his novels. Company officials decided he risked glutting the market by producing too rapidly. Goines solved the problem by using the name of an old friend, Al C. Clark, for five books, including a series of four novels depicting the exploits of a black revolutionary, Kenyatta, named after Kenya’s first president.
Kenyatta leads a paramilitary band that operates in Detroit and later branches out into Watts. The members, men and women, hunt white cops–Kenyatta calls them “nigger-haters”–and drug lords who operate in the black community. The first novel in the series, Crime Partners, displays Goines’s usual cynical outlook. Two stickup men, Billy Good and Jackie Walker, sit in a car outside the house of a junkie and his common-law wife, planning to relieve the couple of their cash. Inside the junkie is beating the woman’s six-year-old daughter to death for accidentally knocking his heroin on the floor. Good and Walker walk into the house just after the murder, and Good decides street justice is called for. He guns down the couple while Walker grabs the money. They later meet Kenyatta to buy guns and end up hunting cops. By the end of the novel they get their comeuppance when a drug kingpin has them gunned down.
All four novels contain plenty of gore. In Death List Kenyatta avenges the slain robbers and acquires a list of dealers he targets for elimination. In Kenyatta’s Escape he barely avoids capture in LA, and in Kenyatta’s Last Hit he himself gets smoked while battling a white crime lord in Las Vegas.
Another key element in the series is the salt-and-pepper detective team that pursues Kenyatta. Ryan–a white cop who’s grateful that his black partner, Benson, once took a bullet for him–makes sure other white officers at least respect Benson. Benson refuses to be stopped by the resentment of many of his white coworkers. Because Goines started writing during a period of economic and political advancement for blacks, the inclusion of these characters may well be a statement about the limits of integration.
Goines finished Kenyatta’s Last Hit in the spring of 1974, but he never sent it to his publisher. Stone writes in his biography that on the night of October 21 he was working in his Highland Park apartment outside Detroit. Sailor was making popcorn, and their two daughters, aged four and two, were watching television. The doorbell rang, and Sailor let in two white men, which suggests the men knew the couple. As the girls watched, the men shot Goines, then Sailor. Some people thought the killers were there to rob Goines, who’d just cashed a royalties check; others thought they were taking revenge for a botched drug deal. The murders remain unsolved.
The novel that best sums up what Goines was trying to say may well be Never Die Alone, in which the two lead characters, King David and a white writer named Paul Pawlowski, represent two sides of Goines. King David symbolizes the author’s criminal past, Pawlowski the industrious, compassionate manhood Goines wanted to achieve. Early in the novel Pawlowski stands up to a racist newspaper editor who wants him to write derogatory articles about Jews and blacks. Later King David is stabbed by the son of a woman he’d assaulted years earlier, and just before he dies he gives Pawlowski his car and an envelope filled with cash, asking only that he be given a proper funeral. He tells Pawlowski, “Life’s a bitch, man. It just ain’t no win. Here I thought I had Jesus in a jug, no lookin’ back. Done stung for all the bread a nigger needs to get over with, now this shit come up out of nowhere. Can you dig it?”
After reading King David’s diary and finding $50,000 in the car, Pawlowski decides the gangster doesn’t deserve a coffin. He has him cremated, then donates the money to a drug treatment center. In effect, it’s Goines’s harsh judgment upon his own life.