A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Unsurprisingly, in view of its subject, the review contains some fairly graphic language and imagery in places.
The first hurdle to get over with this book is the God awful cover. If I hadn’t known better I would never have picked it up. It sports a black male model complete with gabardine, polo neck, dark glasses, checked trousers and high heels, oh – and a brolly and a fedora. The ultimate bad taste 70s look. You know – the decade that fashion forgot?
Someone forgot to tell the cover designer that the book starts in the 1920s and really concentrates on the 30s, 40s and 50s. The author wrote the novel in the 1960s, so where the 70s look comes into it I’m not quite sure. The model on the cover’s not the Author, because he appears on the inside back cover – and he’s one Robert Beck aka Iceberg Slim. So, who’s the dude on the front? If this guy was paid to sell this book- he doesn’t. Wrong decade, wrong character, wrong look. The title is printed in bold black underneath the aforementioned model and is enough to make you want to run a mile. There’s nothing on the cover that says READ ME!
Right. Having got over that, let’s get on with the Introduction.
It’s written by Irvine Welsh, the man who brought us Trainspotting and Glue, and he immediately tells us that Iceberg Slim did for the pimp what Jean Genet did for the homosexual and William Burroughs did for the junkie – and that he is probably now as essential reading as William Shakespeare. The only difference being that Slim was black. Okay Irvine, so how come he’s not on any school syllabus?
Welsh begs us to get beyond his life as a pimp and accept him as one of the most influential writers of our age …
Well, just how good a writer was he? Is PIMP literature, fiction, biography or biographical fiction? It’s certainly written from a hell none of us have known. It’s not the voice of the newspaper expose or the smug prison psychologist. Stylistically, his novels are a treat (so we’re told) and his eye for the psychology of a character sharper than just about anyone you’ll ever read. His prose style is that adjective-rich mix, constantly looking out for the telling phrase, so often favoured by many self taught writers. Nothing pejorative from Irvine Welsh there, then.
So far, so good. Now, I’ll try to explain what this book is all about . . .
Prior to being known as Iceberg Slim, (or Robert Beck as he later became known), he was born Robert Lee Maupin in Chicago on the 4th August 1918. No relation, I’m sure, to Armistead Maupin – the homosexual writer who wrote Tales from the City set in San Francisco – but we are back with the classic identity crisis, like Magill, who called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy; or Dusty who was really Mary; or Ziggy who was really David Jones but is also known as Bowie. Exhausting, isn’t it? The mystery inside a riddle inside an enigma syndrome, I call it.
Much of his childhood was spent in Milwaukee’s poor North side and the industrial town of Rockford, Illinois – one of America’s most depressed cities – before returning to Chicago as a teenager. Abandoned by his Father, his Mama supported the family by working as a domestic and operating a beauty shop. Robert says his Mother prepared him for the pimp lifestyle by pampering him during his childhood. As a teenager he briefly attended the Tuskegee Institute in the mid 30s but he was like a fox in a chicken coop. Within ninety days he’d slit the maidenhead on half a dozen curvy co-eds and was told to leave.
Robert was a tall, lithe youth and despite his fondness for cocaine, heroin and whiskey, his gift of the gab turned on a particular type of woman. He started pimping at 18 and plied his trade until he was 42, adopting the ‘moniker’ Iceberg Slim along the way – reputedly through standing at a bar unflappably drinking whiskey as a shoot-out raged around him. The greater likelihood is of him simply being slim, cold and ruthless.
Iceberg, so we’re told, has probably shaped the archetype of every blaxploitation movie pimp/hustler from Huggy Bear to Snoop Dogg in the remake of Starsky and Hutch.
He operated on Chicago’s unforgiving streets in a segregated black and white world where pimping was tied up with notions of upward mobility. This was way before the Black Panthers would have referred to this attitude as part of the problem and not the solution. His chosen route was the escape hatch for the economically degraded working class black man – to seize control, in a brutal and direct fashion, of the reproductive organs of the female to make money in order to generate status for himself. The Author beat women with wire coat hangers till they were black and blue, sold their bodies, stuck needles in their veins, and generally robbed people blind – and that was before breakfast.
Pimping, as explained by the author, both simulated and replicated chattel slavery, or the owning of bodies for the purposes of generating wealth. It was the plantation in motion – a direct by-product of slavery. This theory does have a certain validity, with the white man being able to gain forcible access to the ‘stable’ of black women, while enslaved black males were treated basically like stud animals. ‘I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours’ is another way of explaining it …
After a particularly long spell in solitary confinement at Cook County House of Correction Slim was motivated to give up his life of crime and attempt to write about his experiences, from pimp to artist, instead. He psychologically reconfigured himself and moved to California in the 1960s, where he settled down to a wife, two daughters and redemption. His later years were bookish and contented and he passed away in 1992 at the age of 73.
The Author starts out by apologizing for his brutality and cunning as a pimp and hopes the level of revulsion other people feel in reading about his experiences will propel them into good and enlightened living.
It starts in 1921, when he’s being taken advantage of sexually at the age of three. Maude, the baby sitter, has her hands locked around his head in a vice like grip, his tiny head wedged between her ebony thighs, with the Author unable to catch his breath – resulting in years of neck and tongue problems. Frankly, I don’t remember that far back, but imagine your tiny face being smothered in the nasty smelling genitalia of an adult body, and you pretty much get the root of his problem. The smells of the sexually mature adult suffocating you at an age when you can’t even communicate through the spoken word properly, must leave you with an unspoken rage for the rest of your life. Early childhood sexual abuse is what it was, and it’s probably why Iceberg spent his life exacting a murderous toll on all women.
We soon learn that his Father was a white-spats-wearing, good for nothing bum, with a penchant for high yellow whores with their big asses and bitch dog sexual antics. His Father hurls him against the wall in disgust one day and walks out on the family. Robert and Mama move to Rockford, Illinois to move in with one Henry Upshaw, the only Negro business in town, who becomes Step-Daddy and, for a while at least, life seems to be running pretty smoothly. Henry’s religious and good and kind and all three of them are going to church. Mama opens a beauty shop. Unfortunately, the clientele for the most part are hookers, pimps and hustlers from the sprawling red light district in Rockford and the inevitable happens when a snake called Steve turns up and Mama runs off with him to Chicago, leaving poor old Henry to die of a broken heart. In Chicago, Dad turns up, and Mama organizes with Steve to burgle his house and wipe him out, which they do. Little Robert begins to see his Mama in a different light and starts losing respect for them all. In exchange all the men begin to hate him too, so he takes to the streets and starts his long greasy slide into the grim pit round about the age of 14.
Not unlike Pinocchio, who hooks up with the Fox and the Cat for an actor’s life – “Hey, fiddle-dee-dee …” – so our hero comes across Party Time – a petty hustler, who teaches him the art of ‘Murphying’, which is a con game played on suckers looking for whores. Real Murphy players, we learn, use great finesse to separate a ‘mark’ from his ‘scratch’.
I should add in haste at this point that in order to continue with this book there is a glossary of terms in the back (Iceberg Slim’s original) which you must become familiar with. In fact it’s best you visit the glossary first before reading the book. Memorize it, and then proceed. ‘Mark’, for instance, is a victim and ‘Scratch’ is money. A ‘Hard Leg’ is an older, street-hardened, used up whore, and a ‘Swipe’ is well, you know, the male member … and so it goes on. The vernacular is pure street, and 1930’s slang, as made up by Iceberg himself. It’s black Damon Runyon turned 180 degrees south. You have to get your head round it in order to get through this book and keep cross referencing in case you get lost, otherwise you don’t stand a chance.This book is full of sucker jaspers (lesbians) and flat backers (whores who get paid for straight sexual intercourse) etc, etc … It’s also full of Black people calling each other the “N—-r” word – you know – the one white people are no longer able to use, let alone write?
We are plunged into a pre-politically correct world where Blacks would call themselves ‘Colored’ or ‘Negroes’ or ‘N—–s’, long before we got into ‘Afro-American’, or ‘First Nation’ or ‘Latinos’. When you enter into this world you have to forget everything you’ve ever been taught.
Continuing with our story, Robert then stumbles upon Diamond Tooth Jimmy, a broken down ex-pimp and murderer from the 1920s. He takes to hanging out at his gambling joint and begins a life of procurement. It starts to go horribly wrong when he starts sleeping with a 15 year old, who happens to be the daughter of the resident bandleader, and puts her on the game. Her first client, a friend of the bandleader’s, immediately tells on Robert, and the bandleader informs the Police, who in turn come to arrest him. Robert is about to spend his first stint in a correctional institution – a recidivist activity which continues through the book.
When he gets out, he hooks up with a whore called Pepper who teaches him how to snort cocaine through alabaster horns, and had she lived in the biblical city of Sodom, the citizens would have certainly stoned her to death. We then enter into a world of characters called Weeping Shorty, Glass Top and Pretty Preston – a former Dandy and so called on account of the diamonds winking and sparkling brightly on his fingers and shirt cuffs. Preston tells Robert about Sweet Jones, the top spade pimp in the country, who’s slick and cold blooded. Robert befriends him. After a dodgy start, Sweet Jones takes a shine to him, grooming him into the No1 pimp on the planet and teaching him the pimp code. The equivalent would be like going to Sunday School for us. He tells him to stop grinning, teaches him to be ice cold, not to stick his swipe in his own whores and to treat them mean, in order to keep ’em keen. We start living a world of Hogs (Cadillacs to you and me) Billy Eckstein and Nat King Cole, speedballs and slum hustlers … and so it goes on. I don’t want to ruin your pleasure.
This is the story of a man’s life as he claimed to have lived it in that ‘Guys and Dolls’ theatrical hyper-real world. He can’t really get out of the ghetto on account of the white man, who he’s constantly paying off in bribes. He’s like the proverbial rat in a trap, caught in a vicious circle of exploiting women and depending on drugs, somehow thinking it will lift him to a better place – to that high-walled forbidden white world.
Contrary to the nature of this book I really enjoyed reading it. I entered into an anachronistic world of juke joints and gambling houses and diamond studded geezers. Yes, all rotten to the core, but all with a staggering gift of the gab, especially Iceberg Slim himself who could charm the pants off you, literally. His writing is honest and sincere and at no point does he try to justify himself and his life, which makes his conversion at the end all the more poignant. He does make an avowal of love in the final pages of his book, which he considers to be his greatest triumph, and so do I. A great read.
Canongate. 2009. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1847-673329. 320pp.