Saturday, October 31, 2015

Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim

The thing about Robert “Iceberg Slim” Berg, the reason he is so magnetic, is that he is actually not the “Iceberg” he pretended to be. In this memoir of his life on the streets, he revels in his successes but also agonizes over his failures. He seems to tell us straight: this worked, that didn’t. He concludes it is necessary to hide one’s feelings behind an icy exterior, hiding his fear and doubt and empathy from his stable of whores and from other con men on the street who would double-cross him.

'Berg reminds us several times how close pimping is to slavery, and where the crass brutality of it came from:
"[The book of pimping] was written in the skulls of proud slick Niggers freed from slavery. They wasn’t lazy. They was puking sick of picking white man’s cotton and kissing his nasty ass. The slave days stuck in their skulls. They went to the cities. They got hip fast.

The conning bastard white man hadn’t freed the niggers. The cities were like the plantations down South. Jeffing Uncle Toms still did all the white man’s hard and filthy work.

Those slick Nigger heroes bawled like crumb crushers. They saw the white man just like on the plantations still ramming it into the finest black broads.

The broads were stupid squares. They still freaked for free with the white man. They wasn’t hip to the scratch in their hot black asses.

Those first Nigger pimps started hipping the dumb bitches to the gold mines between their legs. They hipped them to stick their mitts out for the white man’s scratch. The first Nigger pimps and sure-shot gamblers was the only Nigger big shots in the country."

Slim introduces us to the slavery of the skin trade. Not liking the choices he had for getting ahead, Slim decides he will pimp his way to “some real white-type living.” It is a soul-crushing world of double-cons and triple-crosses and his first couple forays onto the streets bring him low. But Slim sucks up to Sweet, a master who pimps “by the book,” and learns how to beat his whores into submission for the scratch they could earn.

Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck writes in street slang but also in full, richly detailed chapters that draw us in and sketch for us his shaky beginnings and long affiliation with the whoring trade. From time in the clink and from other street hustlers 'Berg learned the necessity of applying psychology to his treatment of his whores: he used the oftentimes horribly broken life-stories of the whores against them, and used bling and flash and cunning to dazzle his stable, their tricks, and his competition. He noted his emotional reaction times also slowed considerably when he had a noseful of coke.

But the beauty of this memoir is also in the writing. Slim was in and out of prison from the time he was twenty. In one of the best escape scenes I have ever encountered, Slim's description of his jailbreak from one prison crackles with tension and bravado. We are aching for him to make it outside.

In the end, it is not Iceberg Slim’s cold exterior that draws us to him but his vulnerability and susceptibility. His humanity is the most endearing thing. We have reason to hate this criminal and liar. Perversely, however, we come to admire him for surviving, and persisting in learning every day. He lets us in on those lessons. It may be his best and longest con of all, and we’re all his whores.

A few weeks ago I reviewed Street Poison, the Biography of Iceberg Slim by Justin Gifford. His introduction to Iceberg Slim led to my seeking out this memoir, first published in 1969. In a heartbreaking coda to Iceberg's vulnerability in learning the street game, this first book by Iceberg Slim had a wonky contract with the publisher that earned him little. He did, however, gradually earn international recognition, and the style and naked honesty revealed in this book spawned a culture in music, film, and literature that persists to this day. Years ago I'd first seen this book; at that time I believe it wore a shocking pink cover emblazoned with an eye-popping silver scrawl. There comes a time in a reading life when a book makes sense in the order of things. The time had come for me. I can promise you an unforgettable reading experience, and perhaps some insight into the life of one black man who believed his salvation lie on the street. It is a cautionary tale, and a worthy memoir of a black man in a white world.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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