Plan B Novel Analysis

Plan B Novel Analysis

Come the Revolution in Chester Himes’s Plan B

by

William Rand
Copyright 1 December 2012

Another revision or two would probably have turned Plan B into one of Chester Himes’ best fictional works. Nevertheless, the novel serves, as is, as a powerful, satirical indictment on the absurdity of racism, Puritanism, and violence in United States culture. Plan B can be called a detective novel only in the loosest terms, owing such a label only to the presence in the plot of something to detect and the cameo appearances of Harlem detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. More accurately, Plan B is a return to the African American protest novel, a fitting category, as it is also Chester Himes’ last fictional work.

In light of Chester Himes’ early protest novels such as If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade, however, “evolution” rather than “return” may more accurately describe the structure of Plan B. In his first novel, Himes dealt with racism, violence, and fear in the microcosm of Bob Jones’ world, using many of his own experiences as inspiration. In his autobiography, Himes expresses hurt and resentment over his wife’s better job and good relations with her white co-workers (75), as well as saying, “under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I had become bitter and saturated with hate (76). Such autobiographical sources are typical in first novels, and they often form the foundation for the themes of future works. Of Lonely Crusade, Chester Himes writes in The Quality of Hurt: “I had written what I thought was a story of the fear that inhabits the minds of all blacks who live in America, and the various impacts on this fear precipitated by communism, industrialism, unionism, the war, white women, and marriage within the race” (101).

With few changes, these same words could have been applied to Plan B. Fear is as dominant thematically in Plan B as it was in If He Hollers Let Him Go; however, Plan B supports a much larger scope as well as a more sophisticated satirical tone. In the first novel, Bob Jones tries to—and as often tries not to—rebel against the repressive elements in his immediate environment. By contrast, the later novel presents a rebellion against similar repressive elements, but on a national scale. Not only is the scope of Plan B larger, but the violence is greatly escalated.

It is primarily the graphic violence and sex that prompted Gilbert Muller to describe the novel Plan B as “raw, outlandish . . . part futuristic prophecy, part conclusion to [Himes’] Harlem detective cycle, part political and historical fable, part scatological satire” (109). However, the violence itself defines a sort of evolution in Chester Himes, as does the theme of revolution. Muller says that Himes “had been preoccupied with the possibility of a black American revolution ever since his first novel had been published” (109). Himes’ own writing shows an even earlier interest. In a 1944 article, “Negro Martyrs Are Needed,” Chester Himes says, “Revolutions are not necessarily brought about by force of arms. . . . In the event of a Negro American revolution it is to be hoped there will be no shooting” (174). The next year, of course, Himes published If He Hollers Let Him Go, a violent, African American protesr novel, but also one in which the violence is typically nonproductive in a revolutionary sense. Later, however, in a 1970 interview with John A. Williams, Himes says, “I can see what a black revolution would be like. Now, first of all, in order for a revolution to be effective, one of the things that it has to be, is violent, it has to be massively violent; it has to be as violent as the war in Vietnam” (44). This is exactly the sort of violence Chester Himes depicts in Plan B, albeit within a structure of satire.

It is as if Himes were confirming his 1970 opinion on the need for violence in revolution while at the same time showing the absurdity of the violence itself. In effect, the satirical violence in Plan B has evolved from the brutal violence of the detective novels, defining the irony of situation described by Raymond Nelson: “It is one of the brilliant ironies of the Harlem Domestic stories that the detective-heroes can express their genuine love for their people . . . only through the crude brutality that has become their bitter way of life” (270). Such irony seems to reflect a sort of madness—a madness carried to absurd extremes of satire in Plan B. Fabre and Skinner call the novel “an incandescent parable of racial madness as well as a retrospective of American racial history” (xxvi). Their description adequately introduces the parallel plots that make up the structure of the novel Plan B.

The novel begins with concepts of “fear” and “marriage within the race” as described earlier by Chester Himes, but his governing theme is a lack of unity among African Americans. Chapters one and two present T-bone Smith and his common-law wife Tang, who live in Harlem. T-bone is an addict living off of Tang’s earnings as a prostitute. The anonymous delivery of an M-14 rifle concealed as a box of flowers exacerbates the discord already existing between them. The weapon is meant for the black revolution, as indicated by an accompanying card. Tang becomes enthusiastic at the prospect of their coming freedom; T-bone becomes terrified at the chance of losing his freedom to jail should the rifle be discovered. Their disagreement results in T-bone killing Tang. Later, when investigating the murder, Grave Digger kills T-bone in a plot driven rage over the latter’s murder of Tang. Digger’s act neatly foreshadows his killing of Coffin Ed at the end of the novel.

The next two chapters introduce the parallel plot narrating the racial history of a certain tract of land in Alabama. The opening of chapter three, “Like many great institutions, CHITTERLINGS, INC. had come about by accident,” introduces the irony of a revolution founded within a capitalistic structure built upon a failed slavery enterprise. The historical narrative starts at the beginning of the nineteenth century with Albert Harrison, slave owner and business failure, and his family. The theme of sex within a Puritan context is also introduced in this section.

The unifying thread through the narrative of the Harrison family is sex, specifically culturally taboo sexual practices such as incest, prostitution, and his daughter Cotton Tail’s specialty, anal sex. Chester Himes also borrows the name “Fertile Myrtle” from his personal experiences (Himes/Hurt 80) to describe a minor character in the historical narrative. Fertile Myrtle is the nickname given to the character of whom Chester Himes says: “Myrtle Macpaisley, a fading, gray-haired woman with lean, sagging breasts and a flabby, spreading figure, still retained her craving for a good ‘screw’” (Himes/Plan B 24). Although the narration and description of sexual encounters are not nearly as graphic as are the depictions of violence, it is the culturally forbidden act of sex in its many forms that drives a large part of the plot of the novel.

Group sex, adultery, exhibitionism, anal sex, interracial sex, and prostitution all take their turns, especially through the racial history section. Chester Himes also makes the dramatic point that men accused of rape are not always guilty. For instance, throughout the novel Plan B, consensual sex between a black man and a white woman is always referred to as rape; and the man is always punished severely. Chester Himes spends considerable time in the first volume of his autobiography detailing his own sexuality, and he likewise spent a considerable amount of time as an expatriate, living within another culture. His use of the word “rape” to denote obviously consensual relations between interracial couples and his use of scatological satire throughout the novel Plan B therefore suggest that he was probably engaged in a bitterly satiric exposure of racist and Puritanical attitudes toward sex in the United States, not exclusively African American themes.

It is, in fact, a sexual incident that at least indirectly provides the stimulus for the main action of the novel Plan B and connects the two parallel plots. First, however, Chester Himes moves the historical narrative up to 1917, when the Harrison family has died out and the rundown estate has been “put up for auction for unpaid back taxes” (39). The action then switches back to the present to follow the mystery of the M-14 rifle. The Harlem detectives bow out of the plot—Grave Digger on suspension and Coffin Ed for a minor knee injury incurred off duty—and another weapon surfaces. The detectives do not return until the end of the novel. And even though the theme of crime and the mystery of the M-14 rifles remain, the detective aura also bows out; the novel Plan B becomes one of black revolution and social protest.

Chapter seven is totally devoted to a detailed and bitter description of the squalid conditions in black slums. It is followed by a violent reaction to those conditions by the recipient of another of the mysterious, untraceable automatic weapons. An African American sniper kills two racist white police officers as they drive slowly on patrol. Police seal the building off, trapping innocent African American civilians inside, and a firefight ensues. As the violence escalates to absurd proportions, a police tank is brought in, and a police captain issues the order: ‘“If you see any black man trying to get out of any of these buildings, shoot him on sight’” (61). The tank demolishes the building, killing the sniper and sending people fleeing into the street where police gun them down—men and women. Chester Himes says of the incident, “White cops could never tell black men from black women, as has been evidenced in the Sharpsville massacre in South Africa” (Plan B 65).

Similar such incidents occur around the country as it becomes evident that the M-14s are being widely distributed to black men. In each case, a courageous black man snipes whites until he himself is killed. The snipers never flee; they seem like martyrs to the cause. However, Chester Himes’ concept of martyrdom may also have undergone some evolution because these snipers do not resemble the martyrs which Himes called for in his 1944 article, “Negro Martyrs Are Needed.” Among other more standard traits, Himes says of his Negro martyr, “Preferably, he should be a Negro leader . . . who is well-known to Negro and White Americans alike” (Himes/”Martyrs” 174). In Plan B, Himes’ martyrs are uneducated, unknown men who actually jump the gun in the revolutionary instructions given them to wait. Perhaps the Modernist movement of the “everyman” type protagonist along with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X changed Himes’ mind.

The character Tomsson Black is introduced in chapter ten, whose family history completes the racial history narrative. As racial incidents incite hate, fear, and guilt throughout the country, we see how Tomsson Black came to acquire the Harrison family land in Alabama for his company, CHITTERLINGS, INC. In a flashback, chapter twelve finds Tomsson Black and another African American man named Hoop serving long jail sentences. Both are in prison on rape charges, and in both instances, the white women involved initiated the consensual sex. Chester Himes tells both men’s stories in detail, and both stories resemble the incident that got Bob Jones charged with rape and ultimately sent to the Army in If He Hollers Let Him Go, suggesting again the return of Plan B to the African American protest novel—but packaged as a detective novel.

Guilt causes the wealthy woman who accused Tomsson Black to have him exonerated three years into his life sentence and to give him the money he uses to go into business. She still wants him sexually, and they begin an affair with the understanding that she will continue to finance him. Meanwhile the violence in society continues. Chester Himes makes the point more than once that the attempts by white authority to use violence to quell the black shooters results in more white deaths than does the sniping. He also shows a lack of African American unity as cause for severe problems in the revolution itself. Blacks don’t want to be caught with the delivered weapons, and, therefore, end up turning each other in. Whites vacillate between guilt and rage. “[Blacks] lived in an atmosphere of fear of the whites and suspicion of each other that had, itself, been caused by white fear. It was like a deadly carousel” (Himes/Plan B 143). Blacks have to deal with grotesque, contrasting absurdities as guilt-stricken whites who bend over before blacks and ask to be kicked to a white biker gang that lynches a black man during an outdoor concert. And during all of this, the authorities cannot find the weapons distributor.

Tomsson Black has acquired a one million dollar grant from a wealthy white philanthropic organization to establish CHITTERLINGS, INC. to hire indigent African Americans to market ham in Alabama. The irony, of course, is that whites are financing the weapons distribution. Tomsson Black is behind it all—a fact which a good revision or two by Chester Himes would have concealed more effectively. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger return at the end to state the obvious and confront Black. Then, completely out of character, Grave Digger kills Coffin Ed for trying to apprehend Black, after which Black kills Grave Digger. The novel then fades out rather than climaxes satisfactorily, with nothing resolved, no one apprehended, the revolution unfinished, as if the novel’s only intent from the start were to get rid of the famous Harlem detectives. That is no criticism of Chester Himes’ skill, however. It merely shows the novel Plan B for what it is: an early draft.

Fin

Works Cited

Fabre, Michel and Robert E. Skinner. “Introduction.” Plan B. by Chester Himes. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1993. v-xxx.

Himes, Chester. “Negro Martyrs Are Needed.” The Crisis 51 (1944): 159-174.

—. Plan B. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1993.

—. The Quality of Hurt. New York: Thunder’s Mouth P, 1971.

Muller, Gilbert H. Chester Himes. New York: Twayne, 1989.

Nelson, Raymond. “Domestic Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 260-276.

Williams, John A. “My Man Himes: An Interview with Chester Himes.” Conversations With Chester Himes. Ed. Michael Fabre and Robert E. Skinner. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995. 29-82

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