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Myrtle Goines and her daughter Joan sit terrified listening to the violence coming from behind a bedroom door in their northeast Detroit home.
The man locked in the bedroom is Myrtle’s only son, Joan’s big brother. He’s in there at his own request. He’s instructed his family not to open the door, no matter what. But now the young Korean War veteran and heroin junkie is throwing fits. Withdrawal is a bitch, and his self-prescribed plan for shaking the addiction is more than he can handle. His sincerity isn’t in doubt, for no dope fiend who isn’t trying to “kick” would ask to be separated from the outside world, where he could score a fix. But heroin is simply too big a monster for Donald Goines.
“He didn’t control the habit. The habit controlled him,” remembers his sister, Joan Goines Coney, who still lives in Detroit.
Out of love, Joan and her mother complied with Goines’ requests for confinement more than once. But inevitably, he would beg, scream and curse until he escaped through a window or mustered the strength to break down the door. With his withdrawal sickness healed after a dose of the drug, he would return home and resume his life, and the cycle would start all over again.
Despite his addiction and harsh life on the streets of Detroit, Donald Joseph Goines was destined to leave his mark on the literary world. He wrote 16 novels in five years in the early 1970s, cranking out famously graphic prose as fast as his fingers could move, pounding out narratives based on his experience as an addict and career criminal on the streets of Detroit. His books are as hard-hitting and shocking as they are engrossing page-turners that grip the attention of any reader with a taste for action.
A film adaptation of the Goines book Never Die Alone is scheduled for nationwide release by Fox Searchlight films on March 26. Starring rapper and actor DMX, who also produced the film, Never Die Alone is among the most highly anticipated urban dramas of 2004. Goines fans have been decorating Web message boards, including the Internet Movie Database, since last year in anticipation of the film — the first major Hollywood work based on a Goines novel.
It’s a good time for Goines, who died a violent, tragic death in Highland Park in 1974 (lore has it he was shot while sitting at his typewriter, but no evidence of that exists). The Detroit writer is one of America’s top-selling black authors, with a quarter-million volumes sold a year, according to his exclusive publisher, Holloway House. His books — Daddy Cool, Dopefiend, Whoreson, Black Girl Lost and Kenyatta’s Last Hit, among others — sell more every year, have never gone out of print, have been translated into French and other languages and have received critical recognition in America and Europe from such publications as Liberation and Le Monde.
Only Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck competes with Goines for prominence in the genre roughly referred to as “black experience literature.” In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the University of Rochester’s Greg Goode writes, “In his five-year literary career, Donald Goines provided perhaps the most sustained, multifaceted, realistic fictional picture ever created by one author of the lives, choices and frustrations of underworld ghetto blacks. Almost single-handedly, Goines established the conventions and the popular momentum for a new fictional genre, which could be called ghetto realism.”
Every Goines plot includes a whore, a junkie, a killer — or all three; some books feature the character Kenyatta, who fights the street pushers.
“In a postmodern age where hip-hop culture takes the lead globally, Goines is intertextual and has challenged the status quo,” says Imelda Hunt, a pop culture professor at Bowling Green State University. “Even if his writing has no other significance, it reached back to give voice to a generation still trapped inside the walls of central city U.S.A.”
Art imitates life
Most of Goines’ books are set in 1970s Detroit, but Never Die Alone takes place in New York. DMX portrays the sinister drug dealer, King David, a classic Goines character who mercilessly takes vengeance on the woman who rejects his advances by getting her hooked on heroin and watching her die from an injection of battery acid. King David himself meets a grisly end in a street confrontation. Actor David Arquette takes on the role of Paul, a freelance writer who learns about King David’s criminal exploits through a journal the drug dealer leaves behind.
Detroit’s collective memory bank of colorful street players and slick hustlers will find the name King David in its official pimp file. Long before Goines conceived fictional characters like Whoreson Jones and Earl the Pearl, the real-deal 1950s and 1960s pimps like King David, Silky Slim, Goldfinger and Lil’ Mike ran the streets.
Ralph Watts, who knew Goines through neighborhood and family relationships, says Goines’ prose wasn’t so fictional.
“Donnie was using people. Real people, man,” Watts says.
Goines didn’t need to look far for inspiration. When he wrote his first novel he’d been arrested many times; the book was written from jail. By his early 30s, state and federal records show that Goines had been convicted of criminal offenses ranging from vagrancy and the illegal operation of a whiskey still to armed robbery.
But his life didn’t start rough. The Goines family enjoyed a middle-class, Catholic-school upbringing in Detroit near the borders of Highland Park and Hamtramck. Joseph and Myrtle Goines owned a dry cleaning business, and their three children occasionally worked at the shop. The family sometimes took trips to Canada to enjoy nature and go horseback riding.
While black Detroit was largely poor and struggling during the ’40s and ’50s, in the wake of the Depression, the Goines clan prospered.
“We had the first of everything [in the neighborhood] — the first television, a new car every year,” says Marie Richardson, Donald’s older sister, as she sits with younger sister Coney in the living room of their Palmer Park-area apartment. Richardson says her brother was a poor student who showed no serious interest in reading or writing.
Goines faced immense challenges growing up, she says. While his mother adored him, calling him “Donnie,” as did others throughout his life, their father had an obvious preference for his girls, Richardson says.
She and Coney recall that Goines took his first major step into street hustling when he became a pimp. The chosen career was ironic, considering that Goines’ physical appearance was, at one point, his greatest source of pain.
“He had no muscle on his body, no booty,” says Coney. “He would pinch himself on the behind and he would flex in the mirror.”
What Goines lacked in stature with his 5-foot-8-inch frame, he made up for with charm. Coney says Goines’ haunting blue-green eyes attracted considerable attention, and he used his sex appeal to recruit prostitutes and make them his women. But, like his mother, who was often mistaken for a white woman, Goines’ complexion was extremely fair. As he grew into adolescence, his peers became verbally abusive, calling him an albino and describing his skin as “yellow.” His self-esteem suffered so much that he began following a crowd of young hoodlums who were nothing like most of his old classmates at Sacred Heart School, says Richardson.
“He tried to be accepted, and that was the only way he could do so, he felt,” Richardson says.
“It all goes back to his color.”
Goines dropped out of Pershing High his freshman year. Nobody saw his next move coming, but it appears to have turned his life toward an even more certain — and unfortunate — conclusion.
In Goines’ younger years, he was interested in baseball, and developed a reputation for his pitching skills. But along the way, he succumbed to the lure of street mischief, telling family members that he’d learned such tricks as card hustling.
Black Bottom was not far from his home, and it wouldn’t have been hard for Goines and his buddies to pick up bad habits. The legendary Black Bottom community, later destroyed by the I-75 freeway, was known as a place that offered just about every kind of business or service, legal and otherwise. Restaurants, morticians, bars, prostitution — all of them were there. Goines wrote about the sights and sounds of Black Bottom through the eyes of a child born to a prostitute in his 1972 book, Whoreson.
Goines shocked the family when he joined the military, says Richardson. He’d lied about his age to join up.
“He stole my birth certificate,” she says.
With only a ninth grade education and some doctored paperwork, Goines enlisted in the Air Force. His mother was devastated, Richardson says, while his father seemed to take the news in stride. Richardson says she believes her brother enlisted to avoid trouble that was about to catch up with him. Others say an increasingly strained relationship with his father drove Goines away.
At the time, the United States was immersed in the Korean conflict. Goines was stationed in Japan and mainland Korea before returning to Detroit with an honorable discharge at age 17.
Coney — who was about 5 years old when Goines returned — and Richardson say they believe their brother acquired his dope addiction while in Asia. He brought back photos of himself carousing with prostitutes and doing drugs, Coney says.
Readjustment to civilian life was not simple for Goines, Coney remembers. He found jobs, but lost them quickly, preferring to pass time smoking weed and hanging out with friends in a room above the dry cleaning facility behind their home.
Goines’ pimping eventually progressed into robbery, and in 1961 he was convicted of sticking up a house on East Canfield with two accomplices, according to court records. He was incarcerated at Jackson prison and paroled the next year.
Undeterred, Goines continued his quest for fast money. Coney says her brother’s heroin use was uninterrupted, except during his several periods of incarceration. As an adolescent, Coney says, Goines deliberately introduced her to his ritual, when he would cook heroin in a spoon, using a cigarette lighter.
“Donnie made me watch him to make sure I didn’t use drugs,” adds Coney. “He told me that if I ever did he would kill me.”
Support for his habit appeared to be only one of Goines’ motivations. Richardson’s son, Charles Glover, says his uncle had aspirations of becoming a powerful outlaw like his character Eldorado Red or Prince, the protagonist of his book Black Gangster.
“He wanted to be the biggest gangster ever,” Glover says, recalling his “crazy” uncle with amusement.
One of Goines’ boldest adventures in crime would land him in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., and provide him with later material for the money-scheming characters in Black Gangster. A U.S. District Court complaint against Goines and Curtis Stewart, dated Nov. 23, 1964, states that the pair, “did unlawfully have in their possession and custody certain property designed for the manufacture of intoxicating liquor for beverage purposes, to wit: one 110-gallon steel drum, pot-type still, set up and in operation at the premises known as 4175 McClelland [sic], Detroit, Michigan, without having said still and apparatus registered with the Assistant Regional Commissioner of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Unit, Internal Revenue Service, as required by law. …”
Goines had launched a scheme to make whiskey and sell it to after-hours bars. Instead, the enterprise got him locked up for 18 months. He was behind bars in 1967 when all hell broke loose in the city’s infamous “riot.”
A police raid sparked the July uprising that left 43 dead. The target of the raid was an after-hours club or “blind pig” that might have been just the type of place where Goines intended to peddle his homemade whiskey.
By the time Goines returned home the dust had settled, but police programs that black leaders called discriminatory towards black men still functioned.
It took Goines one more trip to Jackson, this time for attempted larceny in 1969, before he decided to try going straight.
Myrtle Goines took a typewriter to her son while he was in prison. He had begun to take notice of work by pimp-turned-author Robert Beck of Chicago, better known as Iceberg Slim. In books such as Trick Baby and Mama Black Widow, Beck wrote first-person accounts of a life Goines knew well. Goines’ family says the books inspired Goines to try his hand at fiction based on what he’d done and seen in the streets.
Goines mailed the first draft of Whoreson to Beck’s L.A. publisher, Holloway House, and waited. In 1970, after he was released from Jackson, Coney says her brother received his first contract. Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie became the first book that would bear his name, followed by Whoreson, published in 1972.
Determined to be successful, Goines worked at a feverish pace. He continued shooting up heroin, routinely spending hundreds of dollars on the drug, Coney says. He claimed to have become so dependent that he couldn’t work without getting high.
Holloway House issued contracts to their new author on a per-book basis. With the cost of his habit increasing, and feeling the pressure to earn a living through legal means, he cranked out Black Gangster, Street Players, White Man’s Justice/Black Man’s Grief and Black Girl Lost in rapid succession. The lifelike characters, who Coney says were often based on people her brother knew, resonated in the minds of many young, urban fiction readers like Gary Hardwick.
“You couldn’t get them at the library,” Hardwick recalls of the graphically detailed and often sexually explicit novels. “You could buy them at a liquor store or borrow them. People had a tendency not to give them back.”
Hardwick, the Hollywood film writer and director responsible for the movies Trippin’, The Brothers and Deliver Us From Eva, grew up in the same neighborhood where the Goines family lived. Also an author, Hardwick credits Goines with inspiring him to write such crime novels as Supreme Justice, which, like Goines’ books, uses local scenery.
A “quiet” man
At age 36, leaving several of his children and their mothers behind, Goines moved to Los Angeles with Shirley Sailor, an attractive younger lady who was liked by Goines’ sisters. But he grew demoralized and struggled financially. He returned home, largely, he complained, because of discrimination by the police.
“They hassled him,” recalls Bentley Morriss, co-founder and CEO of Holloway House publishers. Morriss says he worked closely with Goines in Los Angeles, offering to provide him with help to overcome his addiction. “We even tried an intervention,” says Morriss, adding that Goines insisted that his problem was manageable.
Goines was a polite man who seemed completely removed from the characters he wrote about, Morriss says.
“He was demure, quiet, kind of introspective, albeit that he was hooked on H,” says Morriss. “You in no way could connect the books to the person.”
But Goines was always in need of money, and got into a lot of trouble on the West Coast.
Back in Michigan, Goines, Sailor and their children settled into a multi-family house on Cortland Avenue in Highland Park. He continued to write prolifically, earning royalties from Daddy Cool, the ironically moving tale of a professional killer, and Never Die Alone, among other titles. He completed novels so quickly, Morriss says, that at the company’s suggestion, Goines adopted a pseudonym, Al C. Clark. About the time of Goines’ name change, he introduced a hero named Kenyatta, one of his most compelling characters.
In such books as Crime Partners, Kenyatta’s Escape and Kenyatta’s Last Hit, Kenyatta leads a Black Panther-like organization of young revolutionaries in reclaiming their community from racist police and drug dealers. A sort of Goines alter ego, Kenyatta works to confront pushers of his creator’s real-life dope demon.
Didn’t die alone
Some suspect it was a drug debt that led to his murder.
Others speculate that Goines’ storylines may have crept too dangerously close to identifying criminals he encountered at one time or another. Highland Park police never found the answer.
All the authorities know is that, following an anonymous call, Goines’ body was discovered in the living room of 232 Cortland. He had multiple gunshot wounds, according to an Oct. 22, 1974, police report.
Sailor was found fatally wounded in the kitchen. Two of Goines’ children were discovered at the home unharmed.
The author’s 3-year-old grandson, Donald Goines III, would die by gunfire as well, the unintended victim of a 1992 drive-by shooting in Detroit.
Though dead for three decades, Goines’ name lives on. Morriss estimates that Goines titles have sold approximately 10 million copies.
The 1990s gangster rap trend pointed young audiences back in time to rebellious urban 1970s icons, such as the movie character Superfly, and helped renew interest in Goines.
Hip-hop star Nas nudged the writer’s name into mainstream American entertainment with “Escobar ’97,” a recording for the Men In Black movie sound track, which included the lyrics, “Eldorado Red, sipping Dom out the bottle/My life is like a Donald Goines novel.”
Family members suggest Goines would be gratified by the attention his work receives today. His career was brief, but he always wanted to see one of his books made into a major motion picture, a goal now fulfilled with Never Die Alone.
Ernest Dickerson, director of Never Die Alone and long-time admirer of Goines, says the author's work "makes great film noir." Dickerson is well-known for his collaborations with Spike Lee, as his cinematographer.
DMX says Goines has personal meaning to him, as he discovered the graphic novels while incarcerated, before he became an entertainer.
"I've read every one of Donald Goines' books, so as soon as I heard there was an opportunity for one of them to be turned into a movie, I jumped at the opportunity."
Goines embodies the concept of "keeping it real," says DMX.
"My last three movies, all with Warner Bros., I was kinda the same person," DMX says. "You know, the black guy doing karate, with a lot of money. It's alright for one or two movies, but there's not much realism in that character. [As King David], I don't walk off into the sunset with the girl, and everything is alright. Reality hits, and despite the fact that I'm coming to terms with the wrongs that I've done, I still get what I deserve."
Eddie B. Allen Jr. is a metro Detroit freelance writer. His book, Low Road: The Life and Legacy of Donald Goines, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in October. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.