Death List, the second book in Donald Goines’ four-volume Kenyatta series, ended with the police closing in on the ghetto chief’s holdings. Kenyatta himself was on the run, looking for a fast way out of Detroit. As the third volume’s title might betray, Kenyatta’s Escape is all about the efforts Ken takes to get his people out of harm’s way and the fates of those he leaves behind.
From the farm out past fourteen mile, Kenyatta and a handful of members from his organization take a quick trip to Metro Detroit airport. There, guns blazing, they wade into the airport and take over an airplane. On board, they have a goal of getting to some country where “It’s goin’ sure enough be where a Black man can be a man!” (13) Well, that is not as easy as it sounds, since the plane is taking off from Detroit and has to go to one of the coasts, refuel and then fly across the waters to a nation like Algiers.
While Kenyatta is aware that the authorities know all about his club on the north side of Detroit, and he suspects they know about the farm, he does not know what his own people will do when a bunch of cops show up on the estate. Later in the book, as he mourns the tragic loss of life that occurs and realizes he maybe ought to have told someone like Ali (his second in command) what was going down, he tells himself his people would just give up. Unfortunately, he trained the men and women on that rural estate to be assassins and killers, warriors for his cause.
For some time [Kenyatta] had been actively working on two dream projects. First, he wanted to knock off every honkie cop who had it in for Blacks. And the attacks had been smoothly calculated and swift. Many a cop had never known what had ripped his guts open before the concrete came up to meet his face.
The second project was to rid the ghetto of all the junk pushers. The slick ones who drove the big hogs, who sometimes only fronted for the big men. Big men like Kingfisher, who sat up in a cool penthouse and raked in the money. Nickels and dimes turning into thousands of dollars. Black dollars! (7-8)
His people do not lie down when the authorities show up. At least, not right away. It takes a ton of police cars, a couple of tanks, and some flamethrowers before the farm’s defenders are broken. Five or six manage to escape on horseback into the woods, and many folks are left in pieces. It is a massacre. With their blood up after seeing brother officers dropped, the police are not about to accept surrender, either. When a few of the broken defenders try to give up, hands in the air, they are cut down as well. End result: An Armageddon’s worth of bodies are left in the aftermath.
Meanwhile, the black and white detective team of Benson and Ryan, who have been involved in chasing down Kenyatta’s schemes are still on his trail, first out to the farm and then pulled into a federal task force. The slaughter he witnesses at the farm tugs on Benson’s heartstrings, but he has a job to do and he means to do it to the best of his ability. Ryan finds his own sympathies torn in this book, as well. He is loyal to his partner, but he is also finding his assumptions on race questioned at every turn. These two characters are seeing the most growth in the series.
As well, the farm’s survivors perform some daring escapes of their own, ditching the horses in the woods, grabbing a station wagon and making for Chicago. On their journey, their mood toward the man they once revered sours as they start to suspect Kenyatta of knowing what was going to go down but not sharing.
Aboard the hijacked flight, an idiotic detective with delusions of grandeur and a more level headed air marshal (working against his better instincts) start a gunfight on the plane when there is no real advantage to doing so. A couple of Kenyatta’s people catch lead, the two morons die horribly, and the pilot gets it as collateral damage. The plane drops down in the Nevada desert and Kenyatta must then find a new escape route. Luckily, some bikers show up to see if they can help the plane and its passengers, and Kenyatta makes his move to acquire transport. The bikers have a lodge nearby, and that’s Ken’s next stop.
Although the above synopsizes only half of the book, one might start to glean a sense of the breathless pacing, the cutting back and forth between multiple storylines and some of author Donald Goines’ intent with this book. It is an episodic structure of sorts and in ways just as mean as the previous entries in the series. Like those other entries, Kenyatta’s Escape is a cinematic genre story, and it would make a wild thrill ride of a picture. While the previous books were straight ahead gangster stories or crime-horror tales punctuated with action sequences, this one is straight ahead action and adventure. The author builds epic scope for this one, as he jumps from location to location. Detroit, Chicago, the Nevada desert, Las Vegas, Los Angeles . . . Although it clocks in at only 200 pages, the book is a cross-country jaunt with multiple overlapping storylines. Kenyatta’s Escape aims to be escapism at its best.
Unfortunately, the author’s writing chops are not quite up to the task this time around. From a believability standpoint, it is clear that Goines is familiar with street life and, to a degree, cops. Little details about local and federal agencies and the way they operate just ring false. For example, what are Detroit cops doing at a farm way, way, way outside their jurisdiction? Also, why are federal agents called “detectives,” when that is not their title? Readers who pay attention to these little details might get themselves knocked out of the story. I sure did.
At a prose level, Kenyatta’s Escape is Donald Goines’ roughest book yet. The text is riddled with copyediting errors and odd choices (why is the word Black often-but-not-always capitalized when referring to African Americans in this book when it was never so in previous books?). Ultimately, the word selections themselves are more utilitarian than moving. Here, though Goines deals with some intense situations, he does so with language about as poetic as a police blotter’s: this happens and then this happens and then this. The dialogue is not terribly convincing. At times, Kenyatta’s Escape reads like an early draft, which could have used some more time and polish.
Perhaps this is intentional. The prose serves as a distancing device, allowing the reader to see events but not to be in the moment with them. This might well be Goines trying not to live in these admittedly horrible moments too long. Perhaps he is calling attention to the story elements themselves, trying to make a point about the way some folks try to live like they are in movies only to be confronted with random elements that undercut their most badasssss moments. He would not be the first to do something like this.
Bertolt Brecht famously distanced the audiences to his plays (using an method that would get the wonderful German term Verfremdungseffekt, which translates roughly into “distancing effect” or “estrangement effect”) by calling specific attention to the artistic mediums artificiality. Brecht believed audiences should not empathize with the characters in, say, Mother Courage and Her Children, but reflect on the themes and events from a position of emotional neutrality, an intellectual area. His characters are props. In Goines’ book, the characters feel a bit of the same. Props to be moved around a stage.
Kenyatta is almost superhuman in this book. He slips out of traps and ploys without breaking a sweat. His enemies hurt him by hurting his people. However, there are signs that his strain is getting to be too much. He will brook no one questioning him. It is wartime, you see, and he is the king. To question him is tantamount to treason. Yet, his decisions are the very reason the people around him are hurt and killed. At some point in this narrative, he ceases to be a person for readers to empathize with and turns into a puppet that moves around in occasionally interesting ways.
Is this alienation what the author wanted his readers to feel (ala Brecht)? Or is this just the result of an author grappling with subject matter he was not yet ready to tackle with a craft that was not yet up to the task of handling them? Sometimes authors will push themselves to try something new, and as we might expect, not all of those experiments are successful. I suspect that is the case here.
The book is a strange one on several levels. Occasional events arise that do not jive with the rest of the book or series. Kenyatta abuses his woman Betty mercilessly through the book, mostly verbally but occasionally slapping her around as well. It is grueling stuff. This gets intensely disturbing when Betty starts to get jealous about Carol, one of the white biker women who came out to the plane and ended up Kenyatta’s prisoner. As it turns out, she has reason to be jealous (though her choice of targets is questionable). With Carol, Kenyatta finds himself attracted to a white woman for the first time in his life. This is notable, the text tells us, because:
He found himself drawn to her. She was the first white woman in his life that he had ever been curious about. All his life he had despised white people, and especially Black men with white women. He found his new attraction strange and baffling. It wasn’t like him, and to want a white woman sexually was really against his nature. But here he was hoping she would lean against him again. (107)
Of course, Carol too finds herself feeling new emotions:
For the first time in her life she wanted a Black man. Now she knew why the white women she had seen with black men did what they did. Before, she’d always looked down her nose at them. But now, she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt why. (106)
The graphic intimacy they eventually share is made all the sketchier because of the whole captor/captive situation. “She murmured something about stopping, but he paid no heed.” (117) One wonders: Am I reading a scene about unbridled primitive sexual desire stretching across the boundaries we impose on ourselves or am I reading a scene where the supposed hero rapes a woman, making her admit she loves it before he’s done? Just what the hell is this?
Yeah, that question percolates through the text, leaving the book as a head scratching experience. There are some wild moments, some enjoyable sequences, some thoughtful stuff . . . For example, in one of the book’s funnier moments, the indefatigable Kenyatta confronts the hijacked airplane pilot about what trick he thinks he’s pulling, since his watch reads nine-thirty but the sun is still shining outside the plane, only to get schooled in a rather basic globalization principle:
“Why don’t we try it again,” Kenyatta said. “First of all, the time situation is fucked up and when I say fucked up, I mean just that. Now, by my motherfucking watch, it’s nine-thirty in the evening. And any goddamn country boy can tell you that at that time of the evening it should be more than dusk outside.” Kenyatta pointed out the window. “But when I look out like now, for instance, it ain’t even that. So I got to wonderin’ just what the fuck is going on. I know you been told that our destination is Algiers, so why the fuck is this time element shit coming up?”
The two pilots glanced at each other nervously before the captain replied. They had discussed the matter between themselves earlier so they came out with their prepared lie immediately. “We are nearing the West Coast. We will have to land to take on fuel in California. So the reason you still see daylight is because of the difference. You will have to set your watch back three hours if you want it to be correct now.”
As the captain spoke, Kenyatta stared into the white man’s eyes trying to tell if he was lying. He didn’t know if they should land in California or Cuba to take on fuel. It was something he should have been aware of, but he wasn’t. He could only hope the pilot spoke the truth. (21)
This bit might not be a guffaw worthy laugh, but it tickled me because it humanized Kenyatta in a way I did not see coming. For all his planning, all his swagger, all his determination, he is not perfect, he is not all knowing, he is not hyper-capable. In addition to many of those things, he is just a guy who didn’t know about a little detail most folks take for granted these days.
Unfortunately, such moments are set adrift upon an ocean of mediocre prose, which calls too much attention to the unbelievable coincidences, failing internal logic and weirdly disjointed episodes. A shame, really.
Well, we shall see how the events in these first three books culminate in the fourth and final book of the series: Kenyatta’s Last Hit. With a title like that, I expect we are going to see Kenyatta’s gangster storyline reach its inevitable conclusion. As for what else will happen, I can honestly say I do not know but I look forward to finding out. I for one am hoping the survivors who made it to Chicago have a chance to confront Kenyatta face-to-face about their suspicions. I hope Betty gets pull a Tina-to-Ike-Turner moment of strength against her man. We shall see.
Kenyatta’s Escape is available in a paperback edition from Holloway House Classics. No eBooks are available for any of Goines’ fiction, which is a sad statement on its own.
Next Sunday, we will check in with the fourth and final book in the Kenyatta series: Kenyatta’s Last Hit. It is available in paperback.
Goines, Donald. Kenyatta’s Escape. Kensington: 1974.
“I Said “Up Yours,” Baby: Kenyatta’s Escape” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover image and quotes taken from the Holloway House Classics edition, released 2008.
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