The Cool World
by Warren Miller
Summary: The Cool World is fiction exploring the life of Harlem gang leader Duke Custis. The book is exciting, short, and easy to read. However, the plot is thin and the “troubled-youth-joins-a-gang” theme is very familiar
Review: Way back in 1959, a white writer named Warren Miller (1921-1966) published The Cool World, a novel about Harlem gang life. Miller focuses on Duke, a teen rushing headlong into “the street life.” The novel enjoyed some success and, in 1964, a Cool World movie appeared to some acclaim. Fifty-plus years later, The Cool World is still a decent read, but it will not shock contemporary readers.
One can summarize the plot in a few words: Duke Custis lives in a Harlem slum, moves up in his gang (the Crocadiles (sic)), and prepares for a rumble with their big rivals (the Wolves). Various adults try to dissuade Duke from his path, with predictable results. While good, the novel would have more depth if Duke were more conflicted about his bad actions. Though the plot is thin, Miller makes the most of it and The Cool World is easy, entertaining reading.
One aspect of the book that I dislike is Miller’s decision to present the entire novel with nonstandard spelling and grammar. Consider the following passage:
“They dint know what I was promotin. I jus walk up to one of them coolies with a big smile and put it to him. They nothin they could do about it. Bein coolies they got no protection you know.” (p. 52)
I realize that he was attempting to capture Duke’s voice but – in my humble opinion – this makes the reader work too hard for too little reward.
Same Song, Next Verse
I don’t want to belabor the point, but The Cool World lacks punch due to the popularity of the “troubled youth” novel. While reading Cool World, you find that the first book that comes to mind is Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, which also dealt with Harlem. Other similar books include Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets, S.E. Hinton’s stories of poor white teens (Rumble Fish, The Outsiders), and many others. In fairness to Miller, The Cool World appeared before most of these similar books; nonetheless, readers may feel that they have read this story before.
So, the above paragraphs are a white guy’s review of another white guy’s book about black America. Multiculturalists will be appalled. In all seriousness, The Cool World is a good, readable novel, even if it is not particularly unique.