Books

What the pimp, addict and thief knew about writing great fiction

“Larry Jackson, better known as ‘Daddy Cool,’ stopped on the litter-filled street in the town of Flint, Michigan. His prey, a slim, brown-complexioned man, walked briskly ahead. He was unaware that he was being followed by one of the deadliest killers the earth had ever spawned.”

They say you should write what you know. You can call Daddy Cool — the 1974 novel by legendary author Donald Goines — a work of urban lit or African American noir, a black experience novel or a literary street opera, but you must call it cool. This gritty tale of an outwardly average middle-class black family whose patriarch just happens to be a stone-cold hitman presents a classic, high stakes drama filled with characters whose passions, while outsized, are nevertheless relatable. It’s harrowing, it’s disturbing, and it’s damned good.

This is because Goines — a middle-class kid from a good family who became a drug addict and career criminal — knew what he was writing about. His tragically short career shows that when it comes to writing what you know, timing is everything.

 Daddy Cool by Donald Goines

 

Catholic guilt and middle-class black angst

“He listened to the footsteps of the man who had turned down the same street as he did. Unable to control himself, William turned completely around and glanced at the tall, somberly dressed man coming toward him. He let out a sigh as he realized that he had been holding his breath. He noticed that the man coming toward him was middle-aged. Probably some family man, he reasoned, hurrying home from work. He almost laughed out loud as he reflected on what a hired killer would look like.”

Donald Goines was born in 1937 to a law-abiding, solidly middle-class black family. His parents owned a dry-cleaning business in Detroit. Goines was the “product of Catholic elementary school” and as he grew up, he seemed destined for a stable, secure future as a small business owner just like his mother and father. But like so many teenagers of the 1950s, white and black, he struggled with the stultifying conformity of post-WWII America. In 1952, at the age of 15, Goines lied about his age and ran off to join the Air Force. He returned in 1955 as a 17-year-old Korean War veteran with a raging heroin addiction.

 

Drugs, jail and the allure of the mean streets

“The tall, dark-clothed man had hesitated briefly; now he came forward quickly. … ‘You know,’ he continued as he approached, ‘you can’t trust these dark streets at night. Some of these dope fiends will do anything for a ten-dollar bill.’”

Goines spent the next 15 years supporting his addiction via a variety of criminal careers, including pimp, gambler, and thief. In the process, he went to jail seven times, spending a total of six years — one-sixth of his short life — behind bars.

While in jail in 1965, Goines decided to embark upon a new career: writer. He initially tried to craft Westerns since he was “a fan of cowboy flicks,” but his efforts were not successful. Simply put, Goines was no cowboy. He was a middle-class black kid from Detroit.

Then in 1969, back in jail once again, he read the work of pimp-turned-writer Iceberg Slim. Inspired by Slim’s depiction of an urban landscape that was far more familiar than the remote world of the Wild West, Goines wrote his semi-autobiographical novel Whoreson. This book, and the rest of his oeuvre, would be published by Slim’s publisher, Holloway House.

Out of jail in 1970, Goines went to work as a part-time writer, full-time junkie, “writing in the morning, shooting up the rest of the day.”

As Lola Ogunnaike noted in her 2004 New York Times article commemorating the 30th anniversary of Goines’ death, “Driven by a need to support his drug habit, Goines wrote at a feverish pace, sometimes finishing books in less than a month. … [He] became one of the most popular black pulp-fiction writers of the 1970s, producing 16 paperback novels in under five years.”

Nine of his books came out in a single year, 1974. Daddy Cool was one of them.

 

Literary legacy

“With a flash, the tall man dressed in black threw his knife. The motion was so smooth and quick that the knife became only a blur. The knife seemed to turn in the air once or twice, then became imbedded in William’s slim chest. It happened so suddenly that William never made a sound.”

Critic Greg Goode has hailed Goines’ style as “ghetto realism,” which contrasts starkly with the glitzy glamorization of criminal life found in the contemporary blacksploitation genre.

Goines’ Daddy Cool: no relation to the 1976 disco hit “Daddy Cool” by Boney M.

 

Daddy Cool is an exemplar of this graphic yet tightly controlled literary realism. At its heart a family drama, the novel charts the inexorable downfall of hitman Larry “Daddy Cool” Jackson as he struggles to maintain a comfortable middle-class life for his wife, daughter, and stepsons. Hiding behind his façade as a mild-mannered small business owner, Daddy Cool regularly puts his devastating knife-throwing skills to lucrative use as a contract killer.

Though his “expensive ranch-style home” in Detroit is a model of respectable stability, Daddy Cool’s stepsons and daughter rapidly slide down the social hierarchy to become street thugs in the case of the former and a prostitute in the case of the later. Daddy Cool’s reactions to these unforeseen developments drive the plot from the realm of drama to Shakespearean tragedy.

Cited as a source of inspiration by numerous hip hop artists and street lit authors including 50 Cent, Daddy Cool also spawned a graphic novel, designated in The Blacker the Ink as “the first graphic novel to have appeared under an African American author’s name.”

Though Goines’ books, including Daddy Cool, have sold close to 10 million copies, “critical recognition has been minimal, and white readership has been virtually nonexistent.”

As Ogunnaike observed in 2004, “Writing for an urban black audience about subjects too grim for mass consumption ensured that Goines would be critically ignored by the mainstream.”

Goines’ career ended in 1974 when he was 36. He was shot to death just miles from his childhood home while seated at this typewriter. He was finishing his 16th novel, ironically titled Kenyatta’s Last Hit.

the delve

 

 

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