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Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim…

Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim

by Justin Gifford

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385538340, Hardcover)

An Amazon Best Book of August 2015: You might not know who Iceberg Slim is, but there's no escaping his influence. Born Robert Beck in 1918, at the height of the "Great Migration" that brought millions of African Americans out of the South and into northern cities, he spent the formative years of his life practicing various street hustles in the "black belt" of Milwaukee. His initial trial-and-error approach resulted in several prison stints, where he completed his education with a master class in pimping under the tutelage of the more accomplished inmates. (He also studied Freud, rounding out his talents as a manipulator.) His training served him well, as it were, as evidenced by a notorious 25-year criminal career punctuated by several more trips to the cooler. Following his last incarceration in 1961, Beck gave up the game, joining his ailing mother in Los Angeles while turning his energy toward writing. And this is why you might know who Iceberg Slim is: His books--notably his epic autobiography, Pimp--became unlikely underground bestsellers, with millions read or purchased seemingly anywhere but where books are sold. Inspiring generations of writers and performers who followed--including Donald Goines, Dave Chappelle, Ice-T, and Ice-Cube (the latter two choosing their pseudonyms as homage)--Iceberg Slim codified a unique American subculture, transforming it into popular culture in the process.

But what to make of Justin Gifford's biography? It's certainly not a redemption story. Robert Beck was not often a good man, and the straightforward descriptions of his repugnant, businesslike brutality--often in his own words--are difficult to read. The tragic figure of Beck's mother orbits the story, providing a kind of moral gravity (albeit weak) that occasionally and eventually pulls him away from his illicit lifestyle, but he's mostly a source of devastating pain for her. This isn't hagiography either; while addressing the gaudier aspects of pimp culture--again, popularized by Slim--Gifford is careful to avoid sensationalism or glorification, despite the occasional foray into Slim's own streetwise vernacular. Ultimately, Street Poison is a compulsively readable story of an unseemly man, whose legacy was as unforeseeable as it was impactful. --Jon Foro

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 06 Aug 2015 21:21:21 -0400)

A biography of the notorious and influential writer explores the sexual trauma and racial violence he endured that led to his reinvention as Iceberg Slim, one of America's most infamous pimps of the 1940s and 50s.

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