A Well-Published Pimp | The Works Of Iceberg Slim
One of the most influential writers of our age. (Irvine Welsh)
Putting the words together, literary genius and former pimp does not seem like a practical simile. In fact, it is two ends of a very different spectrum. One of which includes works of artistic genius, blended with a social commentary, and revolutionary ideals. The other, the illegal sale of the female form, an enforcer, the emotionless beings chasing the American dream. All those sentences describe perfectly the prowess of the late Iceberg Slim, Robert Beck (August 4, 1918 – April 30, 1992).
Of course being a creature from the undercurrent of society, both led to, and inspired Robert Beck’s first great work, the semi-autobiographical Pimp (1967). The influence of his first masterpiece was not the typical African-American work, it was more desolate of hope, staring directly into the abyss of underworld culture. Every word was dragged from the well-worked Chicago streets and served up without any filter to its audience. A submergence into the sex trade with Iceberg Slim as your guide. Of course, with two ingrained traits which Beck cannot separate himself from, one is not to squeal on any of his acquaintances, the second changing names to protect the people he knew. In all, Pimp is delivered with the Shakespeare from the ghetto approach, a literary work that is both genius and subversive.
In this book I will take you, the reader, with me into the secret inner world of the pimp. I will lay bare my life and thoughts as a pimp. The account of my brutality and cunning as a pimp will fill many of you with revulsion, however, if one intelligent, valuable young man or woman can be saved from the destructive slime; then the displeasure I have given will have been outweighed by that individual’s use of his potential in a socially constructive manner.
Where Pimp gave you a peek into the world of crime, Slim’s follow-up, Trick Baby (again 1967), launched a very personal attack on the American mindset of the day. Here, Robert Beck, once more, takes the reader onto the streets of Southside Chicago. The novel follows a man, Johnny O’ Brien, nicknamed White Folks. Born to a mixed race couple, a man who could pass as being of either white or black.
Trick Baby centers on Johnny’s black mother, a woman who had no regard for black men. She marries Johnny’s father, an Irish man and a drunk who soon left after getting pressure from his family. Johnny’s mother goes on to raise him on her own, but descends into mental illness. At the same time the aspects of racism are pronounced with a subtlety that is, at times, overpowering. The character of Johnny is caught between both worlds of colour, accepted by neither and rejected by both. This, of course, leads to a life of hustling and crime, though the character of Johnny (White Folks) is one who is likeable, and at times even warming. However, the backdrop of rawness makes this essential reading. The art dragged from the sewer becomes more pronounced in 1972, as Trick Baby hit the silver screen as we entered into the era of Blaxploitation classics.
Beck’s first two published novels dragged you into his gritty past existence, holding it up in front of the reader and asking the same reader to make judgements on the right or wrong of the behaviour. Nothing, however, prepared the world for his next boundary defying leap. Whereas his last two works hinged on tales of prostitution-enforcement and racism, now he turned his attention to the homesexual community. The tale of Otis Tilson is told, a story planted within the hell of ghetto life in Mama Black Widow (1969). This work is, in my view, one of the most intense fictional stories put to paper by any author. It is certainly the pinnacle of Beck’s work, but also the one that garnished him the most interest, and, controversy. By contrast Last Exit To Brooklyn (Hubert Selby Jr.) can appear as a Mills And Boon fantasy and tame by comparison.
Mama Black Widow drags the hidden undertow of homosexuality into the daylight of the late sixties. The novel follows the Tilson clan, a family of sharecroppers living on a plantation in Mississippi. They pack up their bags to leave behind the whipping for streets paved with gold. They find only the degradation of the ghettos in the 1930s Chicago slums. They become trapped within a desolate existence, surrounded by racism, drugs, prostitution, violence and police brutality. The protagonist Otis Tilson, a man struggling with his own sexuality narrates his adventures and his own transformation into drag queen Sally. The reader can see from the outset that there would never be a happy ending to this story. A descent such as this into a world without mercy is both brutally and skillfully told, predatory violence is the evil that lurks between the chapters. Beck does not hold back when it comes to holding up a truth which at times causes discomfort to the reader, it does not stop this novel from becoming an addictive page turner.
After a gap of two-years Robert Beck returned with a collection of essays, The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim. While his works of fiction were the cause of controversy, his life story and time as a leading pimp on the streets of Chicago for twenty-years were made even more compelling. Audiences were given the true Iceberg Slim, not the writer, these stories were about the criminal, and jailbird.
Presented in such a fashion readers could almost smell the caustic atmosphere emanating from where Slim once stalked. But what separates The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim from his works of fiction is simple and inspiring. It presents hope. This was Beck’s hope, one where he could and did change after the ten-months he spent in jail in 1960. Emerging, perhaps not so much reformed but revitalized with a better mission statement. A way out of the marginalized-black communities into a world where his experiences would fuel his art.
A gap of five years passed before more novels, Long White Con and Death Wish: A Story of the Mafia were published. While these were acclaimed releases along with an album of spoken word ‘beat poetry’, Reflections, none really had the same impact as his first three novels. Beck would continue to write all the way up to his death in April 1992 at the age of 73.
The reemergence of Iceberg Slim and his legacy are down to a the new publication from Contra Mundum Press. Slim’s final novel, and third posthumously released work, Night Train to Sugar Hill. The work is set against the backdrop of eighties Los Angeles and the book is submerged within that drug culture and the violence on the Hollywood streets. While covering much of the ground of previous novels, the surroundings are updated, the mindset and the greed of a decade in love with itself. Even from beyond the grave the name Iceberg Slim refuses to be forgotten.