August 2008. Wingate Field in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. The place is packed with people who’ve come to see Erykah Badu perform in the free Martin Luther King Jr. concert series held here every summer. Badu has spent the show abruptly changing numbers midsong, baiting the cops patrolling the field, following a radar detectable only to her. Suddenly, as if mimicking that moment when, after flipping a radio dial, a station comes in loud and clear, Badu says that “we” all pray for President Obama, and the static disappears. Election day is three months away, but Badu is speaking as if Obama has won. In her mind, he already has. In that moment, every secret hope and fear in the place is out in the open. The audience, overwhelmingly black, is caught balancing on the thinnest knife’s edge, unable to ignore what the election of Barack Obama would mean about the possibilities of American life, not wanting to think about how distant and cruel those missed possibilities would seem if he lost. The mixture of hope and dread is nearly unbearable.
July 1964, another election year. The Cow Palace in San Francisco. John Chancellor is covering the Republican National Convention for NBC. He’ll be arrested for refusing to give up his place on the floor to the Goldwater Girls, a preview of how the press will be treated at the other party’s convention four years later. Making the rounds, Chancellor finds an elderly black man at the back of the arena, standing by himself and weeping, repeating the words “all my life, all my life.” The man has remained true to what he believes is still the party of Lincoln, the party without the Southern wing that’s been obstructing civil rights legislation for years. He says he’s been a Republican his whole life. Chancellor looks at the man and sees that his suit is covered with holes where Goldwater delegates have ground out their cigarettes.
In Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1963 novel The Expendable Man, it’s the summer before that Republican convention, and a young intern named Hugh Densmore is driving from his medical residency in Los Angeles to a family wedding in Phoenix. Everything about Hugh radiates stability, responsibility, order: the discipline that comes from adherence to routine. Oversleeping on the morning he’s meant to chauffeur his mother on errands, he conducts his ablutions as if a NASA launch depended on it: “Five minutes to shower and shave, five to dress—slacks, sport shirt, loafers. He’d learned in the hospital not to dawdle.” At the wedding celebration he meets Ellen, a beautiful young student preparing for diplomatic service. Hugh has been set up with Ellen by his family, but he resists the attraction growing between them because any serious romance has to wait until he has paid back his family for med school and established himself as a doctor. Even ordering at a drive-in on the way to Phoenix, Hugh makes his choices—a BLT and iced coffee, because it’s hot outside—less out of instinct than sensible deliberation. In other words, he’s the perfect noir patsy.
How is that possible for a character who’s such a paragon of common sense? In noir, as in low comedy, the patsies are usually the ones suckered by their own base instincts. This is the genre where stiff dicks and empty pockets override every other sensible consideration. Partly it’s that Hughes, in what would be her last novel, is writing a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time story. Like another Hughes character, Dix Steele, the writer of In a Lonely Place, or Julie Guilles, the Resistance agent hiding out in postwar Manhattan in The Blackbirder, Hugh is the innocent who comes under suspicion, the straight arrow who finds himself in a place where all the safety valves for law-abiding citizens have been shut off. Hugh doesn’t just have to prove his innocence; he has to learn a much harder lesson—those safety valves were never there for him in the first place.
* * *
Driving out of California through the desert, Hugh comes upon a teenage hitchhiker named Iris. His gut tells him not to pick her up, but his conscience is bothered by what might happen to one of his teen sisters in the same situation. The girl, scruffy and defiant, sure that the Cadillac Hugh is driving (his mother’s) marks him as having money, tells him a story about hitching to visit an aunt in Phoenix. Hugh knows she’s lying about some of it, maybe all of it, but he stakes her to a bus ticket and enough for a meal, telling Iris that her aunt can pay him back the next day.
But like the hitchhiker in the episode of The Twilight Zone who keeps showing up further down the road, there she is the next day, hopping into his car at the Arizona inspection station right under the nose of the guards to cadge a ride into Phoenix. Worse, there she is later that night, knocking at the door of Hugh’s motel room. That’s when the truth comes out: Iris is pregnant, her older boyfriend won’t marry her as he promised, and she’s come to Hugh for an abortion. For his part, Hugh is repelled, frightened of doing something illegal, and the sternness that’s been beneath all the help he has warily extended her comes to the fore. He advises her to go to Travelers Aid, or the police, and then shuts the door on her. “Certainly there would be a welfare department in a city the size of Phoenix,” he reasons. But there she is again the next day when the local newspaper headline blares Girl’s Body Found in Canal.
It’s easy to see where the novel is headed. Hugh is going to be suspected of murder, and Hughes is going to essay the classic noir scenario of suspicion and squalor and fear crashing into the propriety and order of normal life. But noir is also the place where every paranoid fear often turns out to be anything but. Up to this point, Hugh’s worries over how it looks for an adult man to be traveling with a teenage girl has coursed through the novel like a low-grade rumble. We are not in the tourists’ paradise that produced the sly raptures to roadside America in Lolita. Unlike Humbert Humbert, Hugh doesn’t believe he can get away with anything—even though he has nothing to get away with. The bus station cashier is surly when he buys a ticket for Iris, the border inspectors worse when she pops into his car: “Both inspectors were watching, listening; suspicion like hoods over their faces. There was absolutely nothing Hugh could do to escape her. To refuse would have been worse than to accede.”
And yet it’s not just Iris’s story that doesn’t add up but also Hugh’s fear, which seems out of proportion to the inconvenience of this girl. What is he hiding? It turns out he has a reason to be afraid, but one he can’t hide. Returning to his motel after the rehearsal dinner, Hugh finds that two cops are waiting for him, the cops that are always in noir, suspicious slobs who aren’t too bright and are ready to take anything a potential suspect says to be a lie. And then the book breaks open. The cops tell Hugh that he was spotted driving into town with the girl, whose real name was Bonnie Lee Crumb: “a nigger doc driving a big white Cadillac brought Bonnie Lee to Phoenix.”
If you skim, you might have missed it. Maybe, as with one reader I know, you flip back to see where Hughes tells you that Hugh is black. Or if you’re a black American of a certain age, you might be waiting for Hughes to acknowledge what you’ve guessed. You might already know why, in the opening scene, Hugh has to wait so long to be served at a drive-in, and why, when he is, the waitress grudgingly thrusts a menu at him. You might know why, approaching a hotel, Hugh hopes he won’t be told the last room has just been rented though the vacancy light is still on, or why, when he finds one, he’s happy the desk clerk doesn’t jack up the price. These indignities feel specific to the civil rights era in which the novel is set. In her superb book on black northern migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson writes about the road trips she took with her parents while researching the book, and how her mom and dad were old enough to appreciate taking for granted that they would be able to register at a hotel with a vacancy.
The title The Expendable Man may strike an aural echo of Invisible Man. But Hughes’s novel is a reminder that Ralph Ellison’s conceit was a little too neat, especially by the time in which The Expendable Man was written and is set, the years of the bloodiest civil rights battles. Norman Mailer had sensed this a few years before in an article included in Advertisements for Myself when he wrote that “Invisible Man insists on a thesis which could not be more absurd.” He went on in a passage that might have served as Hughes’s credo:
That the white does not see each Negro as an individual is not so significant as Ellison makes it—most whites can no longer see each other at all. Their experience is not as real as the experience of the Negro, and their faces have been deadened in the torture chamber of the overburdened American conscience. They have lost all quick sense of the difficulty of life and its danger, and so they do not have faces the way Negroes have faces—it is rare for a Negro who lives it out to reach the age of twenty without having a face which is a work of art.
Mailer might fairly be charged with conferring nobility upon suffering. And he surely knew that there have always been whites whose faces, by birth or bad luck, are torn up by the difficulty and danger of life. What makes this passage such a prickly companion to Hughes’s novel is that a life that has lost its sense of difficulty and danger—what we’ve traditionally thought of as the reassurance of middle-class comfort—is the life Hugh aspires to. Hugh is the Visible Man, and yet he longs not to be. Who wouldn’t want to be plain and unremarkable if it meant being treated courteously at the type of restaurant that shows more deference to rowdy teenagers; if it meant knowing your money was good enough at a chain motel; if you didn’t have to endure the suspicions of every schmo who’s managed to work his way into some position of petty authority?
By making her readers (at least her white ones) assume that Hugh is white, Hughes takes aim not just at overt bigotry, but also at the racist condescension, often masked as compassion, at which white liberals have excelled. One reason some white readers might not assume Hugh is black is that they’ve accepted the notion that poverty and pathology are the natural state of black people, that any story of black success is a pernicious ruse designed to get us to ignore the “real” problem of racism. (That’s why it’s still so easy to get liberal critics to fall for a racist parade float like the film Precious.)
Hughes does a brilliant job of conjuring up and conveying the longing for the trappings of normal life. Home is the place waiting for you at the end of a hot, weary journey; the place where you greet your extended family, everyone healthy and fine; where your grandparents’ house offers a comfortable bed and home cooking. Hughes isn’t parodying or undercutting this type of life; she’s locating it in the bedrock of the shared American consciousness. Hugh wants a good position at a good salary. But those are only the outside trappings of the treasured prospect of watching the course of life unfold in the proud, loving embrace of family. If the novel is to work at all, we have to be made to feel the pull of this, to understand what it means for someone like Hugh who, unlike many white Americans in the early ’60s, could not take these comforts for granted.
Hugh Densmore is too dark-skinned to pass. But he lives in a world where a black man who desires middle-class normalcy is, on some basic level, always regarded as trying to pass. He can never be good enough for that. Invisibility is impossible in a life in which you are always on display, in which you have to be better than everyone else just to be counted as good enough. There must always be some secret, some sin, some inbred barbarity waiting to reveal him as just another darkie savage.
The process of Hugh clearing himself of the suspicion that shrouds him is the story of his accepting that invisibility can never be a condition of black life in America. And yet, to Hughes’s credit, she doesn’t give him the option of coming to believe that the life he desires is a sham. She even ends the novel on a note of conditional optimism, suggesting that what lies ahead for Hugh will be hard, honest work—and worth it.
* * *
Ten years after The Expendable Man appeared, when the promises of the civil rights movement seemed so remote under the law-and-order ethos of Nixon, Howlin’ Wolf offered another version of what lay ahead. On “Coon on the Moon,” a track from his final album, Wolf threw out a prediction with such certainty that it couldn’t have been anything less than a prophecy: “They called us ‘coons’ / Said we didn’t have no sense / You gonna wake up one morning / And a coon’s gonna be the president.” There was enormous pride in his delivery, and also the pleasure of rubbing salt in a wound, a touch of what George Clinton would do two years later when he dubbed Washington, DC, “Chocolate City” and, on the song of the same name, included a mocking chorus chanting “Gainin’ on ya!”
For some people—the crowds that turned up at McCain rallies in 2008 chanting “Kill him!”; the editors of the New York Post, who ran a cartoon a few months later depicting Obama as a dead monkey; or the ones who, since his election, have never stopped talking in open code about the America they knew being gone—there would have been no irony in Wolf’s song. For them, a coon had conned his way into the White House, and they were not about to be governed by him.
I first read The Expendable Man in the summer of 2008, in the run-up to the election of Barack Obama. A copy of the edition republished by England’s Persephone Press arrived—slyly, without comment—from a friend in London. At the time, it seemed a perfect metaphor for the indignities directed at Obama on the campaign trail, and for those you could tell were coming. Rereading it now, during Obama’s second presidential campaign, it feels like the story of the man himself.
In a brutal article in the September issue of Esquire, Charles P. Pierce, dissecting how Obama has been denied the full use of presidential power lest it look as if he were getting uppity, wrote, “It has been hard not to notice that he is the first president in my lifetime who is treated as though he has been given permission by the country to lead it, a permission that can be rescinded at any time, for whatever reason, fair or foul.” Hughes’s novel resonates so strongly now because Hugh’s attempt to live an ordinary, decent, productive life is a microcosm of the extraordinary feat to which America is collectively bearing witness: the attempt by a black American to live as if the possibilities promised by American life were now open to him on a scale that, four years ago, scarcely seemed a possibility.
Obama’s caution and pragmatism cannot diminish the heroic scale of that attempt. Nor can the grotesquerie he faces from both sides: the open racism of the right, the more insidious racism of disappointed white liberals who rightfully mock the claim that Obama’s election heralds a post-racial society but treat the existence of America’s first black president as no more than a factoid printed on the lid of their fair-trade skim latte. For them, politics no longer exists on a symbolic or visionary level but on a scorecard, a scale on which Obama’s liberalism can be judged from one to 100.
The Expendable Man evokes the civil rights years vividly, as if suspending them in amber. It reminds us of what battles were won—and yet, to borrow a line from Obama (who borrowed it from Martin Luther King), it thrums with the fierce urgency of now, of battles still not won, battles that will likely always continue to be fought. That Hughes makes us share Hugh Densmore’s justifiable paranoia is not just due to her mastery of noir. It’s because for all the Hugh Densmores who have come since her book was written, life has never been settled; the expansion of the promise of America has not eliminated the threats of America. “Across the tracks there was a different world” is Hughes’s beautiful and evocative first sentence. The Expendable Man is a rebuke to those foolish enough to believe we have come so far as a nation that we all are finally living in the same world.
In last week’s issue we revisited the turbulent sixties in a review, by Steve Wasserman, of Seth Rosenfeld’s The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.