In the early 1970s, when Donald Goines was producing his austere novels about life among Detroit gangsters, drug addicts and sex workers, the books had amateur graphics, were printed on inexpensive paper, and sold in stores. bus stations and party stores because many bookstores wouldn’t sell them.
Almost half a century after Goines’ death – in grim circumstances like a scene from one of his books – a New York-based publishing house is reissuing the novels with bold graphics, and readers can find them at Barnes & Noble and in local libraries. Goines has become a pop culture star whose writing is both studied in college English classes and echoed in the lyrics of rap songs.
“Machiavelli was my guardian, Donald Goines my father figure,” sang Tupac Shakur in “Tradin ‘War Stories”.
Goines’ “Never Die Alone” was made into a 2004 film starring DMX and David Arquette.
Largely unknown in white America, Goines became a bestselling author writing about the arduous life he experienced as a pimp, prisoner, con artist, armed robber, heroin addict, and ninth grade dropout.
His writing was coarse and largely one-dimensional, but it told vivid stories and it intensely described life on the fringes of black America. He explained the mass incarceration decades before it had a name and became a popular cause. He sketched out life on Hastings Street in Detroit’s doomed Black Bottom neighborhood. He’s written about police brutality and retaliation and gangsters, and his books, which are mostly set in Detroit, are filled with blazing violence and unromantic sex.
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Fueled by heroin, Goines wrote feverishly, producing 16 books in just four years. Jay Wade, a longtime friend of Goines, told the Free Press in 1975 that while many heroin users dozed off, Goines used drugs to get active.
“Donnie was the only one I know who did something constructive,” Wade said. “He would go alone and write. It was like he had to tell people what it really was, he had to tell people it was hell.
Starting with “Dopefiend” in 1971, Goines quickly gained attention. In 2004, 30 years after his death, the then-publisher of Goines told the New York Times that his books still sold over 200,000 copies a year, and he estimated that Goines’ sales had exceeded 5 millions.
The current owner of Goines’ books, Kensington Publishing, began republishing his books in 2020, cleverly repackaged with bold covers. They advance at high speed.
“Sales of Goines books in 2020 were double what they were in 2019,” said Vida Engstrand of Kensington. “It is truly remarkable that an author who was first published – against all odds – in the 1970s is not only still in print, but that his books are regularly reissued and his sales increase year after year. “
Goines wrote “Dopefiend” while serving a prison sentence for attempted theft. It’s a graphic heroin addiction story that features a demonic pusher named Porky who abuses his tense clients. Goines rarely glamorized life on the streets.
“The white powder looked innocent as it lay there in the open, but it was the drug of the damned, the curse of mankind,” he wrote. For “all the drug addicts in the Detroit ghetto, the heroine was a slow death.”
Goines’ second book was “Whoreson,” the story of Whoreson Jones, a successful pimp who is the son of a Black Bottom sex worker and one of her clients. His land is Black Bottom:
“Walking down Hastings Street has been a pleasure for me. The appalling deterioration of housing, dark and frightening for some, fills me with joy. It was my home. I did not know of any other way of life.
Goines wrote about the hapless in poor communities, but he grew up in a middle-class Catholic family in the Dequindre-Davison neighborhood in north-central Detroit. In the 1940s, it was a diverse region, where his parents ran a successful dry cleaning business. Her father wanted Goines to work in the family business, but Goines discovered the town’s abundant street life and began to engage in gambling and theft.
At 15, Goines left Pershing High, forged a birth certificate, and joined the US Air Force during the Korean War. In Eddie B. Allen’s “Low Road: The Life and Times of Donald Goines,” a photo of Goines in uniform shows him with a baby face, eclipsed by his uniform cap and fur-collared coat. He served in Japan and Korea, driving a truck and working as a military policeman. He also discovers prostitutes and drugs, especially heroin, and returns to Detroit a 17-year veteran with a habit, in a city where the use of heroin is becoming rampant.
“Smack would be his companion for life,” Allen wrote. “He wasn’t controlling the habit; habit controlled him. In 1973 Goines wrote in a newspaper: “That’s right, I really need a fix to be able to write. If I don’t fix my mind stops. The only thing I can think of then is where and how I can find a solution.
Back in Detroit, Goines became a pimp. He sold marijuana. He got in and out of prison for armed robbery and smuggling, but he systematically studied writing, taking prison classes on topics such as grammar and transitions. Back behind bars in 1969, he became a serious novelist after reading “Pimp: The Story of My Life,” the memoir of a 49-year-old black insecticide salesman and ex-convict named Iceberg Slim, a noun pen for Chicago native Robert Beck. Goines’ mother gave her a typewriter to use in her cell.
Goines created explosive characters, like Kenyatta, the head of a black militant organization in Detroit that targets dirty cops and drug dealers, and Chester Hines, the petty con artist whose experiences in “White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief “illustrate the inequality in the criminal justice system. In the book’s so-called “Angry Preface”, Goines zeroed in on bond slaves, decades before they became a problem for modern-day reformers.
“Make no mistake, there is a lot of money in the surety business,” he wrote. “Most of it comes at the expense of poor black people. “
Scenes of bloody revenge are a common motif in Goines’ books. On October 21, 1974, two men visited his apartment in Highland Park, 232 Cortland. Goines was at home with her partner, Shirley Sailor, and two preschoolers. Several hours later, police found Goines’ body, shot five times with a .38, twice in the head. The sailor’s body was on the kitchen floor; she was shot five times in the head and face. The popcorn sat on the stove. The children had witnessed the murder and then spent the night with the bodies.
The case has never been resolved and the theories of crime range from robbery to reimbursement for the sale of bad drugs. In his wake, Goines lay in a coffin with two of his novels. Before the lid was lowered, someone stole the books.
Bill McGraw is a retired Free Press reporter and editor.