Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim, by Robert Beck

(pb; 1971: biography)


Pimp-turned-author Robert Beck (aka, Iceberg Slim) eschews semi-autobiographical novel writing for a series of honest, confessional and redemptive essays about street life and what he calls “Black” politics.

Despite the dramatic title, the writing is largely straight-forward. Beck clearly has talent, one that Beck says saved his life. The few pimps and cons that survive into old age rarely do well, as Beck notes several times in Naked.

The biographical collection opens with “From A Steel Box To A Wicked Young Girl,” in which Slim recounts hitting the street after a short, final stretch in a Chicago jail. He has one whore left in his stable, and he has to find a way to free himself of her, without pissing her off. (A pissed-off, pimp-dumped whore can turn her pimp into the F.B.I.; the F.B.I. can charge the pimp with “white slavery,” a beef that was an especially big deal, taking into account that this was 1960, and Slim is Black.) As if Slim doesn't have enough problems, his mother, who lives in another state, is dying, and only has a short time left – Slim wants to see her before she goes. Slim must figure out a way to make the whore think that it's her idea to leave... Excellent, perceptive essay about how people play each other.

Letter To Papa” is, as one would guess, a heartfelt, regretful missive Beck writes to his father, whom he hasn't seen in ten years. Good, to the point.

Rapping About The Pimp Game” covers ground already written about in Slim's first book, Pimp: The Story of My Life. Set in 1970, Slim tells about a young man who approaches Slim and asks his advice about pimping. Bitter, wise and eventually hopeful, this essay. One of the best in Naked.

Other essay subjects include: befriending a future Hollyweird starlet (“Baby Sis”); the first girl he fell in love with (at age fifteen), and her later years (“A Goddess Revisited”); other people he met while in the game (“Vignettes: Conqueror Jackson,” “Vignettes: An Old White Slave And Shield,” “About Rain And Rapping With Sweetsend Pappy Luke,” et cetera); and Black politics (“Vignettes: The Black Panthers,” “Melvin X,” “Racism And The Black Revolution,” “Uncle Tom And His Master In The Violent Seventies,” among others).

Another stand-out essay is “An Open Letter To Iceberg Slim,” in which a young Black Vietnam Vet asks Slim about how to go about becoming a writer, and how to deal with the psychological baggage – much of it furious, born of the war – that he (the would-be writer) is dealing with. Despite a few political asides, this is one of the better essays, as Slim replies in a truly concerned way.

When he's writing about less political stuff, the tone and language of his essays is down-to-earth, tender, and romantic (especially “A Goddess Revisited”). When he's writing about politics, the tone is usually hyperbolic, abstract, weary and angry.

If I have one bitch about this biography, it's that much of his political stuff comes off as hot air; it seems like he could've condensed his ideas – steeped in a lifetime of racism and the volatile nature of the sixties and seventies – to two uber-potent essays, instead of dissipating them into six or seven.

My favorite entry in this fifteen-essay collection is the closer, “Iceberg Adrift: Musings, Lamentations,” where Slim talks about people he knew and misses, things he wishes he'd done, how he's mellowed over the years, and his gratitude to still be alive. This is the perfect bookend for this biography, summing up all the best ideas and moods of the earlier essays, minus the political bullsh*t.

For the most part, this is enjoyable, if generally sad and roiling stuff. Ultimately, though, it's – as Slim notes throughout Naked – about hope.

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