The short story writer Raymond Carver’s dictum, that a writer’s primary consideration in any work is precision, is never more so masterfully evident than in Chester Himes’s evocation of the brutality of prison life in Yesterday Will Make You Cry. A prisoner’s barely perceptible mumble, a sideways glance, or the careless wave that lasts just a moment too long can each evoke with pinpoint efficiency a palpable terror and menace.
But the novel then turns to an even more unsettling human condition: the self-created terror and menace within us.
The novel, like any classic work of literature, transcends the specific and the mundane, as in this novel’s tenaciously detailed depiction of a life in prison, and captures universal truths of the human condition. Among such truths is the ability of humanity to re-create reality itself in order to be able to fulfill the soul’s most urgent social, emotional and spiritual needs, including the need for love, no matter the inhumane limitations placed upon life and freedom. But there is a cost.
As Himes states, the absence of discipline makes men cease to be human. In that interminable aloneness of prison, it is only self-discipline that can and must suffice to stay human. But that self-discipline, unmoored, can grow into a condemnatory monster that commits brutal acts of self- flagellation. This unceasing battle continues, for instance, between the prisoner at night, who can safely roam in solitude wide and unimpeded to “ponder the imponderable” and the fantastical, and to remember the past and cry those “deep unshed tears that cry inside of you, which you feel trickling from your heart down into your hollow stomach (p.226),” in contrast with the prisoner in the day, who must, of existential necessity to appear strong, become hardened again and turn against that “soft” self of the night, brutally condemning it.
Himes limns the paradoxical and the ironical in life with a wry, laconic humor. The writing is nearly absent of sentimentality. For Jimmy Monroe, a death, a break-up, or the loss of the love of a father or mother, is over “easy as that.” There’s really nothing more to say, so nothing more is ever said. In a delirium of despair, at the moment Jimmy believes that he is about to go insane, he realizes he cannot do so—the night bell has just rang and it is time to go to bed. Going crazy will have to wait til tomorrow.
The mix of the numinous, the banal, and the monstrous is the very essence of life, which in a word is not only what this remarkable novel manages to capture, but also what emanates with such vital force from it.