Thursday, August 27, 2015

Stanley I. Thangaraj's "Desi Hoop Dreams"

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity, and reported the following:
Sanjeet’s tattoo of the three swords with a shield engulfed in fire and Krush’s hyper-muscular tattoo of Hanuman become a few of the ways in which South Asian American men claim cultural citizenship while playing into “basketball cool.” We see Sanjeet and some other Sikh North American players with tattoos foregrounding Sikh masculinity in opposition to Hindu, Muslim, and Other masculinities. [Page 99, inset below left; click to enlarge.] Through tattoos, the young men engage in the mainstream U.S. politics of (basketball) cool that involves inking one’s body, but doing it in a way in which South Asian sensibilities and histories are realized. Similarly, the creation of team names plays both into their pride for their cities and underlining their ethnic histories. While South Asian Americans men might identify as same, this example of the tattoo and team names demonstrates how difference operates identity formation rather than equivalence. Furthermore, we see how the sporting court is always a site of difference where teams and individuals distinguish each other through wins and losses.

One of the dominant threads connecting all of the chapters and sections in the book is this idea of difference. Instead of stressing an artificial uniformity and singularity to South Asian America, Desi Hoop Dreams examines how various South Asian American communities differentially claim American-ness and national belonging. In fact, we see how the negotiation of American “belonging” involves always producing problematic politics of inclusion and exclusion. As these desi basketball players challenge mainstream racializations of them as either “terrorists” or “nerds,” they ironically invoke similar conservative categories of race, masculinity, sexuality, and class to perform renditions of athletic masculinity that can be read as “man enough.”

Although these young men are inverting the problematic gendered racialization of themselves, desi basketball players fit into the language of basketball ability and basketball cool by excluding various communities. By excluding or marginalizing black athletes, queer masculinity, lower-class desis, and women from the basketball court, they give substance to the very category of masculinity that is also middle-class, respectable, heterosexual, male-able-bodied, and homophobic. Thus, to emphasize the power of masculinity, one must exclude those very communities that are seen as oppositional and foundational to masculinity. We see how pleasures of sport are policed, regulated, and yet there are spaces to challenge these same racial, gendered, classed, and sexualized hierarchies. In the process, we have a basketball window into how the nation and diaspora are contentious, political, and policed spaces.
Learn more about Desi Hoop Dreams at the NYU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Joachim J. Savelsberg's "Representing Mass Violence"

Joachim J. Savelsberg is Professor of Sociology and Law and Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair at the University of Minnesota. He is the coauthor of American Memories: Atrocities and the Law and author of Crime and Human Rights: Criminology of Genocide and Atrocities.

Savelsberg applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur, and reported the following:
How do interventions by the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court influence representations of mass violence? What images arise instead from the humanitarianism and diplomacy fields? How are these competing perspectives communicated to the public via mass media? Zooming in on the case of Darfur, I analyze more than three thousand news reports and opinion pieces and interviews leading newspaper correspondents, NGO experts, and foreign ministry officials from eight countries to show the dramatic differences in the framing of mass violence around the world and across social fields. Representing Mass Violence contributes to our understanding of how the world acknowledges and responds to violence in the Global South.

From page 99:
In short, while interview statements illustrate how activists of national sections of INGOs (here Amnesty-USA) seek to build organizational and linguistic bridges to domestic political movements (Save Darfur in our case), public representations of massive violence as displayed on websites of the national section remain distinct from national contexts and in line with the INGO’s central policies. With regard to the perceived necessity of ICC interventions, however, both organizations agree: they strongly advocate criminal justice intervention by the International Criminal Court against those responsible for the mass violence in Darfur. In their general assessment of the situation—as a campaign of criminal, indeed genocidal, violence or as war crimes and crimes against humanity respectively—and in the conclusions drawn for judicial intervention, NGOs in the United States aligned closely with other segments of American civil society, as our media analysis documented. And they shaped the rhetoric of the US government.

Conclusions Regarding the Periphery of the Justice Field

Clearly, in the United States, civil society and government stood out in international comparison as both sought to advance a criminalizing frame for Darfur and a definition of the violence as genocide. This does not mean, as we have seen, that rhetoric necessarily translates into action. Obviously the Clinton administration was mistaken when it refused to identify the 1994 violence in Rwanda as genocide, fearing that such a label would necessarily prompt military intervention. The George W. Bush administration proved this assumption wrong in the case of Darfur. It spoke loudly about genocide but refused to intervene decisively. Further, despite the rather forceful mobilization and rhetoric in the Darfur case, the world cannot always rely on the United States and American civil society when mass atrocities are being committed. As discussed above, the American response to Darfur was characterized by a particular constellation of societal and cultural conditions. It contrasts with the silence shown in many other cases, such as the long-lasting lack of public and governmental attention to the long and…
The “Page 99 Test” works and does not work for this book. It works as the page entails central lessons learned in part I, depicting human rights and court responses to Darfur; but it neither informs of the competing representations of the reality of mass violence nor does it show the empirical evidence on which the conclusions are based).
Learn more about Representing Mass Violence at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 24, 2015

Susan Campbell Bartoletti's "Terrible Typhoid Mary"

Susan Campbell Bartoletti is the award-winning author of several books for young readers, including Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845–1850, winner of the Robert F. Sibert Medal.

Bartoletti applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America, and reported the following:
Which scene would I find on page 99?

Would it be the scene where George Soper (the epidemiologist) has successfully tracked Mary to the Park Avenue kitchen for the first time? Where Soper forgets the old adage that the cook rules the kitchen? Where he asks for specimens of a very personal nature? Where he accuses Mary of unclean habits? ? Where he neglects to see the carving knife within the indignant cook’s reach? Where Mary lunges at him with the carving knife?

Or would it be the scene where Dr. S. Josephine Baker is sent to accomplish what Soper could not? No one has warned Baker that Mary might be resistant. No one warned her about Mary’s propensity with kitchen utensils.

I wondered if I’d find the scene where Mary bolts outside, scales a fence, and with the help of other household servants, hides in an outdoor closet? When a policeman spies a bit of blue calico sticking out from the door, he opens the door, and Mary emerges, fighting and swearing for all she’s worth. It takes four policemen to strong-arm Mary into the waiting ambulance that whisks her, kicking and screaming, to the hospital.

Page 99 occurs about 20 pages after the book’s midpoint. It’s 1907 and Mary has been remanded into the custody of the New York Board of Health. She’s sent to North Brother Island, a small island for quarantined patients in the middle of New York City’s East River. Mary’s 38th birthday comes and goes. So do Christmas and New Year’s. Mary lives alone in the tiny cottage that sits on the East River bank, with only a small dog for company.

“A keeper, three times a day, brings food to her door and then flees as if from a pestilence,” writes a North American reporter. A New York Call reporter states, “They do not dread leprosy, smallpox, scarlet fever, and a score of other diseases. … But they avoided the disseminator of typhoid germs and left her entirely to herself.”

It is a lonely, dismal existence. Or so newspapers would have us believe. Using a journalistic style known as “yellow journalism,” they fear-mongered the public. They characterized Mary as half-human, referring to her as a “human typhoid germ,” a “human culture tube,” and a “human fever factory.” Later newspapers would demonize her as a skull-simmering witch.

Such reporting dehumanized Mary. (It’s always easier to exploit and victimize and treat someone cruelly after you’ve convinced yourself that the victim isn’t human. It removes the abuser’s guilt and assuages his conscience.)

Soper is guilty of dehumanizing Mary, too. In order to convince the NYC Board of Health to arrest her, he calls her “a living culture tube” and “a chronic typhoid germ producer.”

In his later writings, Soper also transforms Mary into a stock character in a real-life cautionary morality tale. Mary Mallon becomes a fallen woman who deserves her treatment and punishment because she is “dirty” (with all those germs inside her), because she has violated the “true nature” of womanhood and the social mores of the time, and because she refused the help offered by a man. In fact, Soper said, Mary “walk[ed] more like a man than a woman.”

But on page 99, we begin to see a different, human Mary who belies the depictions offered by Soper and the newspapers. We see a Mary who makes life-long friends with others on the island. One such friend was a nurse, Adelaide Fane Offspring, with whom Mary could often be seen walking and talking. This friendship continued throughout the course of Mary’s life.

We see a Mary who longed for human contact and who desired to help others.

“Often I help nurse the other patients on the island and often the children will have no one else take care of them when they are very sick,” Mary later recounted to a reporter. Soon we will also see a Mary who forgave the man who betrayed her to George Soper. At the end of her life, we will see a woman who had close friends who loved her, and about whom she cared deeply, who cared for the less fortunate, and who was a woman of faith.

Mary was not without blame for her fate. But she was not the half-human monster that George Soper and reporters had conjured – and this is the story that emerges on page 99.
Visit Susan Campbell Bartoletti's website.

My Book, The Movie: Terrible Typhoid Mary.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Gary Alan Fine's "Players and Pawns"

Gary Alan Fine is is John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University. He is the author of numerous books, including Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial; With the Boys: Little League Baseball and Preadolescent Culture; and Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Players and Pawns: How Chess Builds Community and Culture, and reported the following:
Flipping through Players and Pawns to page 99, I wondered where I might land. In the rush of chesstime, I discovered: speed chess as blitzkrieg.

All social activities are organized through temporal rules. How we act results from how we allocate time. In competitive chess, each player is assigned a set amount of time to spend as he (rarely she) wishes. This might be two hours or five minutes, depending on whether one is playing traditional chess (long-form chess), as is often the case in serious tournaments, or speed chess, as is often found in evening events at tournaments, online, or in informal gatherings. These rules constitute the same game, but simultaneously they are very different games. Time defines them, creating distinct cognitive, emotional, and social worlds.

Much of Players and Pawns argues that we should not consider long-form chess as a purely mental or emotional game. It is social activity. Chess depends on the interaction of two competitors. They take each other into account, and in doing so repeatedly, game after game, create a community of players. This is intensified in the realm of blitz. By giving each player five minutes or, in the case of bullet chess, one minute, chess becomes a videogame, but a social one. Speed chess is the primary form of internet chess, too quick for players to research their moves, but enough time to intuit what one’s adversary is planning. One must reach inside an opponent’s head to determine how he thinks. Unlike traditional chess, one is able to do this contest after contest: ten minutes each. I quote the psychiatrist and columnist Charles Krauthammer who has for years hosted an informal weekly chess night, what he labels the Pariah Chess Club. Krauthammer argues that it is precisely the rapid-fire multiple games that prevent players from regretting losses and permitting the possibility of avenging defeat. It is mental health in action. Quick chess emphasizes that the experience of contemporary life is swift. Further, sharing these experiences together, not in isolation, one becomes part of a group, a world of common experiences and shared stories.

Chess promotes a joint culture and a vital community, and can do so because we mutually agree on temporal rules as a means by which we build enjoyment.
Learn more about Players and Pawns at The University of Chicago Press.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Ann Larabee's "The Wrong Hands"

Ann Larabee is Professor of English and American Studies at Michigan State University. She is the author of Decade of Disaster and The Dynamite Fiend, and co-editor of the Journal for the Study of Radicalism.

Larabee applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Wrong Hands: Popular Weapons Manuals and Their Historic Challenges to a Democratic Society, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book covers the Rice v. Paladin Enterprises case, more popularly known as the Hitman case. And yes, page 99 does resonate with the entire book, which is an exploration of legal and social debates over whether citizens should be allowed to read, write, and publish weapons manuals, like The Anarchist Cookbook, for murder and mayhem.

In 1993, Lawrence Horn hired James Perry to murder his ex-wife Mildred and her son, Trevor. In a civil suit against Paladin Press (an infamous publisher of popular weapons manuals), Mildred's family claimed that Perry had modeled his crime after Paladin's Hitman: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. One of the key details in the case was that Perry had filed the gun bore to erase any telltale markings, a technique explained in Hitman.

The legal question was whether the publisher could be held liable in a civil suit. A similar situation is whether a company can be sued for providing faulty instructions for building a baby crib that results in the death of an infant. Paladin Press had long claimed that it had a constitutional right to produce such manuals, and their readers had a right to read them. If the courts began allowing civil suits against Paladin, media producers were potentially facing big trouble.

The book examines the ways the courts deal with how-to-murder manuals as a distinct form of speech. For example, is Hitman different than a mystery that provides a detailed description of the crime? Complicating this question is that a Florida housewife originally wrote Hitman as fiction. The courts have usually treated fictional works as an especially protected form of speech and not to be used against criminal defendants. In criminal cases, is reading a book like Hitman a precrime?

Another interesting dimension is that Paladin ended up bowing under legal pressure. The case was settled out of court, but Paladin became more cautious about the kind of books it produced. If (as opposed to the libertarian view) we think that the world might be better off without popular DIY texts on how to murder our neighbors and build pressure-cooker bombs, weaponized drones, and 3-D printable guns, then might civil suits provide a disincentive?

The book asks whether mayhem manuals are important forms of creative, political expression (no matter how misguided) or are so dangerous that the state must do what it can to suppress them.
Learn more about The Wrong Hands at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Victor Tan Chen's "Cut Loose"

Victor Tan Chen is the editor of In The Fray magazine and a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies economic inequality. Chen’s latest book is Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy, which tells the stories of men and women trapped in long-term unemployment.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to the book and reported the following:
Page 99 talks about how the unemployed deal with the depression and anxiety that come from losing part of their identities. Work is central to our sense of self—it’s often the first question we ask someone we meet—and during the workday we build friendships that sustain us throughout our lives. Many of the people I interviewed felt isolated. Friends could no longer relate. Relationships with spouses and children became strained. Unable to provide the way they used to, they found themselves mired in blame and doubts.

One smart way to help the unemployed is used extensively in Canada: action centers. When a layoff hits, the government sets up a help center for the company’s workers and trains some of them to work there. Unlike strangers at a government agency, peer helpers can assist their former coworkers with a personal and personalized touch. Lynn Minick of the National Employment Law Project points out that America’s social safety net for the unemployed largely helps the assertive and self-reliant. For those who might otherwise fall through the cracks, it makes a big difference if they have someone willing to step up for them, he says.

While policies are important, they’re not enough. As I write on page 99:
Individuals internalize society’s belief that being unemployed is degrading, and their mental health and social ties suffer as a result. Regardless of how much they receive in benefits, the unemployed are less satisfied than those with jobs. Even in countries with generous unemployment insurance, the unemployed tend to die at a younger age.
Society treats the long-term unemployed—whose numbers have remained at unprecedented levels since the recession—as lazy and useless. My book focuses on unemployed autoworkers, many who had worked hard for decades and, thanks to good wages and benefits, achieved a middle-class lifestyle. Now, suddenly, they are failures. Some became suicidal because they felt they had let their families down.

Our society attacks the “takers” who live off government aid or the “pampered” union members who had the gall to attain a decent quality of life. It’s obsessed with performance and proficiency, self-improvement and success. But in a culture that values winning at all costs, the long-term unemployed are the ultimate losers. The solution, I argue, has to involve changing that culture.
Follow Victor Tan Chen on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about him and his book on his website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Randy D. McBee's "Born to Be Wild"

Randy D. McBee is Professor and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist, and reported the following:
The 99th page appears at the start of chapter 3, which is titled, “‘You Ain’t Shit if You Don’t Ride a Harley’: The Middle-Class Motorcyclist and the Japanese Honda.” The chapter introduces the reader to a growing divide between motorcyclists that will shape motorcycle culture throughout the postwar period. The 99th page focuses specifically on the increasing numbers of British-made bikes that entered the U.S. market after World War II. Immediately following the war the U.S. government relaxed trade restrictions to help rebuild Europe’s economy and British-bike makers quickly took advantage of the opportunity. Before long Americans across the country were riding BSA, Triumph, and Norton motorcycles (to name a few), and the bikes quickly attracted the attention of Hollywood. The iconic film The Wild One (1953), which starred Marlon Brando as the leader of a motorcycle club called the Black Rebels featured Brando in the now famous look of the rebel--dungarees and a leather jacket--and he was riding a Triumph motorcycle.

Over the next two decades debates about brand name loyalty became increasingly acrimonious with the introduction of the Japanese Honda motorcycle in the early 1960s. Honda would quickly dominate the U.S. market for two main reasons: the company became famous for their clean, easy to ride, lightweight motorcycles that stood in sharp contrast to the 1000ccs (or bigger) Harleys that were hard to start, mechanically unreliable, and loud, and because of a famous ad campaign that identified Honda riders as the “nicest people.” This new breed of motorcyclist was depicted as clean cut, respectable, and middle class, and these riders stood in bold relief to the traditional motorcyclist who was an “outlaw” at heart and increasingly imagined as violent and anti-social.

The success of Honda and the emergence of the middle-class rider profoundly shaped motorcycle culture. Honda’s popularity was accompanied by a shrinking share of the market for Harley-Davidson, which held less than 4 percent by the early 1970s, terms like “Jap bike” and “rice burner” framed the increasingly tense debates about economic nationalism, and fears about motorcycle safety compelled legislators to start passing helmet laws in the late 1960s. Helmet laws were part of a broader effort to regulate “outlaw” riders who were depicted as a threat to the non-riding public but also to protect middle-class riders whose safety dominated discussions about the growing numbers of motorcycle accidents and fatalities. Outlaw riders opposed helmet laws. Middle-class riders were blamed for them. The frustration surrounding these two different groups undermined efforts to develop a grassroots movement to repeal helmet laws and the resulting frustration contributed in part to the first slogan helmet opponents adopted in their bid to challenge regulation: “Helmet Laws Suck.”
Learn more about Born to Be Wild at The University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 14, 2015

Deanna Fei's "Girl in Glass"

Deanna Fei is the author of the award-winning novel A Thread of Sky. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Fei has received a Fulbright Grant and a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Huffington Post, and other publications.

Fei applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new memoir, Girl in Glass: How My "Distressed Baby" Defied the Odds, Shamed a CEO, and Taught Me the Essence of Love, Heartbreak, and Miracles, and reported the following:
The scene unfolding on page 99 of Girl in Glass is a fateful one: the birth of my first child. At this moment—what seemed to be my umpteenth hour of contractions--all of my meticulous preparations for the delivery are collapsing against the primal reality of the pain.
Peter suggested trying the alternative labor positions we’d practiced, but nothing could have seemed more ludicrous to me at that point than getting on a ball or into a tub or onto all fours, let alone slow dancing with my goddamn husband. When he attempted a few of the massaging techniques we’d learned, I yelled at him not to touch me.

When I finally asked for the epidural, Peter asked me if I was sure. This was the procedure we’d agreed to follow when we read The Birth Partner. Yes, I was sure. I’d never been surer about anything in my life. I wanted it now. Actually, now was much too late. I wanted it to have happened already. I wished I’d reserved it the day I was born.
And then, just as I was starting to despair, I delivered the baby with a triumphant push: Here was my son, exactly the way he was meant to be—born on his due date, no less. “Everything about him was an unforeseeable mystery and everything about him was like home.” From that day on, I thought I understood the most ordinary miracle of all: the radiant perfection in the birth of a new baby.

Then, thirteen months later, my second child exited my body much too soon and was rescued by doctors, encased in glass, and attached to machines. This baby, my daughter, seemed fated to be a tragic outcome—unless, by an act of divine intervention, she turned out to be a miracle child.

A preemie: It sounded so common, even kind of cute. Just like a regular baby, only in miniature. Yet the odds against my daughter overshadowed her very existence. Her life was suspended between birth and death, hope and fear, nature and science. Each moment that she survived carried her not toward a promised future, but further into limbo.

And everything about her birth and the harrowing months that followed forced me to question everything I thought I knew about how life is supposed to begin. Girl in Glass is my journey to the heart of this question. Along the way, I explore the worth of a human life: from the insidious notions of risk surrounding modern pregnancy to the history of how we care for sick babies to contemporary cost-benefit analyses of what their lives are worth—and finally, to the depths of my own struggle to make sense of my daughter’s arrival in the world.
Learn more about the book and author at Deanna Fei's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Svetlana Stephenson's "Gangs of Russia"

Svetlana Stephenson is Reader in Sociology at London Metropolitan University. She is the author of Crossing the Line: Vagrancy, Homelessness and Social Displacement in Russia and coeditor of Youth and Social Change in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Gangs of Russia: From the Streets to the Corridors of Power, and reported the following:
If you open my book on page 99, you will find a discussion of the structure of territorial Russian gangs. Like many other gangs around the world, Russian gangs (called “streets”) unite young people (the “lads”) living in the same city area. Some “streets” are relatively small, others form large associations (“families”) that can have several hundred members. Many of these gangs date back to the Soviet times. Although we tend to associate the rise of organized gangs with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of crime and violence at the start of market reforms, as I show in my book many of these gangs first emerged back in the 1970s. A massive shadow economy was then emerging in the Soviet Union and some young street delinquents formed entrepreneurial gangs to racketeer Soviet shadow producers and corrupt service sector managers. At the beginning of the 1990s both old and recently formed gangs moved to racketeer newly privatized companies and individual entrepreneurs. By the late 1990s many gang leaders (those who did not perish in gang fights and did not end up in prisons) managed to legalize their wealth and become heads of corporations and even members of parliament.

But the streets lived their own lives and by the time I conducted my research in the Russian city of Kazan in the 2000s, some of them had become stable neighbourhood institutions. As I explain on page 99, young people join gangs from the age of 17, and from the age of 25-30 they tend to drift away from everyday gang activity, when family and work obligations take over. Only the most committed remain in the gang, those young men who want to continue with their criminal careers and join organized crime networks.

But even members who have drifted away (such as Ispug, the gang member I quote on this page) continue to attend obligatory gang meetings, so as not to lose touch with other lads. The gang becomes a social club rather than a business network. Members seeking to pursue legitimate careers see contacts with their former gang mates as still useful. Gang leaders know the “right” people in local councils and the police, who can help if current and former members - or their relatives - become victims of crime. The gang therefore becomes a source of social capital for ambitious young people, and, as one of my interviewees said, “being with the lads is no trouble, and everyone needs connections in life”!
Learn more about Gangs of Russia at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Justin Gifford's "Street Poison"

Justin Gifford is an Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Nevada, Reno. His teaching and research focus on American and African American literature. His book, the first literary and cultural history of black street fiction, Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, was a finalist for both the Edgar Allan Poe award for literary criticism and Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award for scholarship.

Gifford applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim, and reported the following:
At about the halfway point of his journey from Chicago pimp to bestselling writer of street literature paperbacks, Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck gets a tip that the FBI is on his trail for violation of the Mann Act. A successful pimp with five women in his stable, a new Cadillac every year, and a steady supply of cocaine, Beck had cultivated a reputation as one of the South Side of Chicago’s living legends. He had hung out with some of the city’s most notorious black gangsters, including Albert “Baby” Bell and the Jones Brothers, reputedly the richest black men in the world. But with the feds on his tail, Beck hunkered down in a “dingy one-room kitchenette,” where “at night, rats would come scampering and squealing from the alley. They came under the back door which hung crookedly on its hinges.”

Beck’s talent as both a pimp and a novelist came from his inimitable abilities as a storyteller. Even while hiding just a few blocks from his prostitutes, he convinced them in regular phone calls to keep working for him. He told them wild stories that he had obtained engraving plates to counterfeit money, and he stalled them by promising ever more extravagant rewards for their loyalty. “I’m gonna breeze back into town the only millionaire pimp in the world. I’m gonna buy a beach and a mansion in Hawaii for my stable. If we run outta scratch, we’ll just run off another bale. So stay cool and keep humping.” It was through his ability to pimp fictions that Beck exploited hundreds of women and sold millions of books throughout his lifetime.

What makes Beck more than just irredeemable misogynist, however, was that he was plagued by deep feelings of guilt for his crimes. His mother Mary—who was an active member of the church and the black community in Milwaukee—raised Beck as a single mom. From the time he started pimping at the age of 18, he began to have horrific nightmares of whipping his own mother. While he was hiding out from the authorities, these nightmares worsened to the point where he couldn’t sleep. “Those dreams about Mama would hog-tie me on a sweaty rack of misery. I had an awful fear of another jolt in the joint. The guilty daydreams on the heels of the nightmares were torturing my skull.” Beck’s one and only connection to his humanity, Mary plagued him with feelings of guilt in his unconscious mind until he finally quit the pimp game to become an author 20 years later. But that is another story.
Learn more about Street Poison at the publisher's website.

My Book, The Movie: Street Poison.

Writers Read: Justin Gifford.

--Marshal Zeringue