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