In (Semi-)Praise of Iceberg Slim

Not a simple legacy

Cool guy in a nice suit sitting on blocks of ice

Robert Beck, aka Iceberg Slim, isn't having any part of your bullshit

Reading time: 3 minutes

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August 4th, 2020 at 10:41pm

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He's not always easy to read, but I can't put him down.

Who was Iceberg Slim?

Born in Chicago on August 4, 1918 and raised by a single mother, Robert Beck (born Robert Moppins) grew up in Milwaukee and Rockford, IL.

The prostitutes who came to his mother's beauty salon fascinated Beck as a child, and he started pimping at age 18. He would later claim his street name was Iceberg Slim - because of his calm, cool demeanor - but he was actually known as Cavanaugh Slim. "Iceberg" came later, in his books.

He would later claim his street name was Iceberg Slim - because of his calm, cool demeanor - but he was actually known as Cavanaugh Slim.

By the age of 42, he had battled cocaine and heroin, served time in prison, worked with hundreds of prostitutes, and been, by his own admission, a terrible person.

After deciding he didn't want to be a pimp any longer, he found work as an exterminator and got married. He told his wife stories about his past, and she encouraged him to write them down. Then something clicked.

Holloway House published Beck's first novel, Pimp: The Story of My Life, in 1967. Trick Baby and Mama Black Widow followed in 1969. Long White Con came out in 1988. He also published an autobiography, a collection of short stories, and a few other novels. He released a spoken word album in 1976.

Beck died in 1992. To learn more about him, watch Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp (2012).

The books

I've read several of Beck's novels, and my thoughts and feelings about them equivocate.

Problem #1

The hustle. The sex and violence. The cars. The hotels. And the goddamn mind games. They're all there - but with them comes rampant misogyny.

This is one of the problems I have with Iceberg Slim's novels. If we look at his writing as black art, it's magnificent storytelling - fascinating insight into a world I know nothing about. If we look at it as male art, well... women might have a few issues with how they're portrayed. Even if the story is "realistic" for the environment, they may not find it "fascinating."

Consider the opening page of Pimp:

Dawn was breaking as the big Hog scooted through the streets. My five whores were chattering like drunk magpies. I smelled the stink that only a street whore has after a long, busy night. [...]

"Goddamnit, has one of you bitches shit on herself or something?" I bellowed as I flipped the long window toward me. For a long moment there was silence.

Then Rachel, my bottom whore, cracked in a pleasing ass-kissing voice. "Daddy Baby, that ain't no shit you smell. We been turning all night and ain't no bathrooms in those tricks' cars we been flipping out of. Daddy, we sure been humping for you, and what you smell is our nasty whore asses."

Problem #2

The dialog can be overwritten and repetitive. In particular, the characters say each others' names way too often.

Book cover: Long White Con

Different from the Pimp novels, but still fun

Book cover: Trick Baby

This might be Slim's best

From Trick Baby, the opening of Chapter 14, "The Torturer":

I said, "Blue, stop at the florist shop."

He turned his head quickly toward me and gave me an odd look as he pulled to the curb. I walked unbowed through the lightning and whipping rain into the shop. I selected three dozen light pink roses, the color of Camille's skin. I walked back to the Caddie and got in.

Blue pulled away from the curb and said, "Love must come to us all, I guess. You must have run into one of those grabby, suction pussies."

I laughed said, "Believe it or not, I've never touched her. Blue, she's so beautiful. It's like she's from another world."

"Love must come to us all" followed by "suction pussies"? Saying Blue's name twice? These sorts of things are common in Slim's books. They're not poetic musings or stylized riffs. They're not literary cancer, either - they're just awkward and mismatched.

And yet...

Even though the stories can be discomfiting and, in places, badly written - we can definitely say badly edited - Iceberg Slim has the elusive "It." The thing that, in the case of a writer, pulls me through the story whether I want to continue reading or not.

If we look at it as male art, well... women might have a few issues with how they're portrayed. Even if the story is "realistic" for the environment, they may not find it "fascinating."

I'm not slumming. I'm not fascinated by sex workers. I'm not fond of how awfully women are depicted in the books. I don't think his dialog flows well at all.

And yet I loan out my Iceberg Slim books and recommend him to people. My copy of Pimp is out on loan right now. What the hell is that? Seriously. What is that?

 Postcard: Flüeli-Ranft Postcard: Salt Lake City 

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