Review: ‘Street Poison’ by Justin Gifford

Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim. Justin Gifford. Illustrated. Doubleday. 265 pages. $26.95.
Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim. Justin Gifford. Illustrated. Doubleday. 265 pages. $26.95.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, if you wanted a book by Iceberg Slim, the best-selling black writer in America, you didn’t go to a bookstore. You went to a black-owned barbershop or liquor store or gas station. Maybe you found a copy on a corner table down the block, or being passed around in prison.

The first and finest of his books was a memoir, Pimp: The Story of My Life, published in 1967. This was street literature, marketed as pulp. The New York Times didn’t merely not review Pimp, Justin Gifford notes in Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim. Given the title, the newspaper wouldn’t even print an ad for it.

Pimp related stories from Iceberg Slim’s 25 years on the streets of Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and other cities. It was dark. The author learned to mistreat women with a chilly élan. It was dirty, so filled with raw language and vividly described sex acts that, almost 50 years later, the book still makes your eyeballs leap out of your skull, as if you were at the bottom of a bungee jump.

Yet Iceberg Slim’s prose was, and is, as ecstatic and original as a Chuck Berry guitar solo. Mark Twain meets Malcolm X in his sentences. When he was caught with an underage girl by her father, for example, the author didn’t just run. “I vaulted over the back fence,” he wrote, “and torpedoed down the alley.”

Pimp is a different sort of American coming-of-age story, the tale of a determined young man who connived to take what society would not give. It’s a subversive classic. When someone starts a shadow version of the Library of America, an anti-canon, filled with underground forms of literary accomplishment, an early volume will be devoted to the tangled glory of Iceberg Slim.

Gifford’s taut biography is important and overdue. The author, an associate professor of English literature at the University of Nevada, Reno, is a dogged researcher who arrives at a somewhat unexpected conclusion: The stories in Pimp are mostly true.

Gifford does many things well. He situates his subject not merely as an anti-establishment writer who influenced dozens of others, but also as the literary godfather of gangsta rap. (Ice-T and Ice Cube took their stage names from him, Gifford notes.) Iceberg Slim laid the groundwork for the Blaxploitation film era. He was a paragon of a kind of outlaw black style.

The author sets Iceberg Slim’s story against that of black life writ large in America in the decades before and after World War II. Without once dismissing his subject’s misogyny, which Iceberg Slim would later repent, he sets Pimp in a “long African-American autobiographical tradition, from the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs to the recent memoirs of Malcolm X and Claude Brown, in addressing the racial inequalities of American society.”

Iceberg Slim was born Robert Lee Moppins — he changed his name to Robert Beck — in Chicago in 1918. He realized young that his options were limited. He got his first look at the lush life that crime promised when his mother, who had left his abusive father, opened a beauty shop.

Whores and hustlers came to be her primary clients. “They were the only ones who always had the money to spend on their appearance,” he would write. He was mesmerized by their glamor and, he said, “that’s how I got street poisoned.”

Between the ages of 14 and 17, he was arrested eight times, for crimes petty (stealing pens, interrupting movies) and not so petty (sexual misconduct). He was charming and handsome and violent. His mother got him into the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but he was quickly expelled, apparently for gambling.

During a stint in the Leavenworth, Kansas, federal penitentiary for prostitution-related crimes, he began, as Malcolm X did in prison, to educate himself. He also learned, from fellow inmates, the fine points of operating as a pimp. The vital thing was to maintain an icy composure, hence his adopted name.

Iceberg Slim oversaw five to 10 prostitutes at any one time. He wore outstanding clothes; he bought a new Cadillac every year; he consumed mountains of cocaine and heroin. He tapped into what he called “that poisonous pimp’s rapture.”

After yet another prison stint, he realized that he was too old and too poor to get back into the pimping game. He worked odd jobs and pulled odd cons. He married and had four children. His stories about his old life were so vivid that his wife encouraged him to write them down.

He was good at it. Both writing and pimping, Gifford suggests, “were essentially acts of strategic storytelling.” Iceberg Slim would go on to write several novels, a story collection and an intense book of essays, The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim (1971). In 1976 he released a spoken-word album, a forerunner of hip-hop, called Reflections.

By 1971, Gifford writes, Iceberg Slim’s books had sold some 2 million copies. He found fame, of a sort, and appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and did speaking tours. But except for the sale of his novel Trick Baby (1967) to the movies, he never made much money.

His small publisher, Holloway House, appears to have treated him poorly. Gifford locates dark irony in the fact that “America’s most famous pimp was seemingly being pimped by the commercial literary marketplace that had made him a star.”

Iceberg Slim died in 1992, mostly forgotten, as the Rodney King riots raged in the streets near where he lived in Los Angeles.

Gifford’s book can be blocky. His disquisitions on topics like the nature of individual cities and prisons aren’t well integrated. The narrative comes to full stops. But there are many compensations.

Gifford makes a case for many of Iceberg Slim’s books, not merely Pimp. Indeed, this month Vintage Crime/Black Lizard is issuing a previously unpublished Iceberg Slim novel, Shetani’s Sister. This biography sends you racing back to Iceberg Slim’s oeuvre. Those works are the whiskey to this volume’s whiskey and soda.

Later in life, Iceberg Slim told an interviewer: “What other bastard has been able to get the thrills of pimping and then get all the thrills and excitement of a family — all within one lifetime. Pimping. Family. All within one lifetime! See my kids? You see me, I’m Papa! What the hell! I’m right here with it!”

Dwight Garner reviewed this book for the New York Times.