The Cool World by Warren Miller is an astounding accomplishment depicting the Harlem youth gang lifestyle in the 1950’s. It is told completely in the Ebonics vernacular, narrated in the first person by the main character, Duke Custis.
I picked up this book while browsing in The Last Bookstore in LA which I wrote about previously. The book caught my eye because of a comment from James Baldwin on the cover where he states it as, “one of the finest novels about Harlem that has ever come my way.” Baldwin ranks as one of my favorite, if not my favorite, writers and if something impressed him I am certainly willing to give it a chance.
While I know these quotes printed on books can sometimes be misleading and put out of context for the sake of book sales, I gave the first ten pages a quick read in the bookstore and deemed it worth finishing the job. I was not disappointed.
I cannot speak to the lifestyle in present day Harlem, much less in the 50’s, but the story created a vivid and captivating picture of what living in this gang lifestyle may have been like. Following Duke in his rise through his own gang ‘The Crocadiles’ and against their rival gang ‘The Wolves’ is a journey with strong characters displaying the struggles that plague, and sometimes destroy, the youth growing up in Harlem at this time.
I later found out that Warren Miller is a white man who did not live in Harlem which, to me, only makes this novel an even more impressive accomplishment. This book was adapted to film as well as the stage, but still remains in obscurity much like the rest of Warren Miller’s work.
This was a pretty quick read for me as I finished it in my few days staying in Los Angeles. I would highly recommend this book and feel it is a shame it has not gained more attention over the years. I have no doubt that I will return to this book for another read some day.