What I’m Reading: Pimp by Iceberg Slim

1 Feb

I was introduced to Pimp, the ur-text of Urban Fiction by Ice-T and his recent film, Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp.  Urban Fiction is gritty fiction set in a cityscape, often written by black Americans for a black American audience.  The only previous brush I’d had with Urban Fiction was through the writing teacher, Clarence Nero, author of Three Sides to Every Story.

Iceberg Slim belongs to a class of writer who does not exist anymore—the natural storyteller who has lived a life worth telling about.  Though I’m sure there are others, the only other writer I know of in this class is Jim Corbett, the Anglo-Indian hunter of man-eating tigers and leopards.  Both men’s stories are inherently interesting and have a refinement that comes from retelling.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this type of writer exists anymore.  Most personal memoir-type books nowadays are either written by MFA students in their twenties or what I call stunt books.

A modern stunt book contract stipulates that the writer will do something for a year and then write about it.  See The Year of Living Biblically, Living Oprah, A Year Without “Made in China”, or Eat, Pray, Love.

That the writer of a stunt book will have an interesting and redemptive experience is a foregone conclusion.  That the writer will be a humane and loveable character is also a given.  But this isn’t true with natural storytellers like Iceberg Slim or Jim Corbett.  Each man lived a damn interesting life and then wrote about it.

There are still people today who have experiences first, without a book contract in their back pockets.  See No Easy Day, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, or I Am Malala. I have nothing against this type of book, but I don’t think they belong in the same category as Pimp or Man-Eaters of the Kumaon.  Because they have nothing to do with the storyteller’s art—they’re about the minutiae and meaning of one remarkable experience.

The books of the natural storyteller have percolated.  Often the writer has to quit his interesting activities before picking up the pen. Corbett gave up hunting for sport. Iceberg Slim gave up pimping.

Pimp is fascinating.  There’s an overarching story of redemption pasted over the scenes of assaulting women and forcing them into prostitution, but this redemption song rings false from the start. Iceberg Slim may have been reformed, but no one reads his book because it’s in the mold of a nineteenth century spiritual autobiography. We want to know what it’s like to be a pimp.

Turns out, it sucks.  Slim tells about how he was hooked on drugs—first cocaine, then heroin—and served hard time.  He becomes a paranoid freak, then an old man before he’s even forty.

The genius of this book is how Slim somehow keeps the reader on his side. At every turn, he is a horrible human being, yet he never ceases to be the hero of his story.  I marveled at this. I tried to figure out why I was rooting for him when he was only trying to gain market share from other, equally amoral pimps.

After considering it for some time, I think it has to do with the way he begins his tale.  He starts with what Holden Caulfield would call “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”, so we learn right away that he had a rough childhood and suffered for the sins of his parents.

He also tells us very little about the women who worked for him.  If he’d allowed us to empathize—even a little—with the women he coaxed into prostitution and used up, he would certainly have fewer readers.

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