Monday, February 22, 2016

The Great Lost Pimp Strut of 1986

Iceberg Slim, Shetani's Sister

LAPD vice detective Russell Rucker and Manhattan pimp Master Shetani are almost identical personalities. Addicted to control, both will ignore any rule to maintain their illusions of autonomy. When Master Shetani decides to relocate his stable to sunny Shakey Town, he places two alpha males on an inevitable collision course. California's glamorous street subculture will never be the same.

Iceberg Slim, the often forgotten godfather of hip-hop, originally wrote this manuscript in 1986, then stuck it in a bottom drawer and died with it unpublished. Biographer Justin Gifford, in his introduction, intimates Slim did this to punish his publisher, who failed to pay him royalties. But elsewhere, Gifford credits Slim's first wife as unbilled co-author of his best work, and that marriage ended in 1978. I suggest Slim knew this novel didn't meet the standards of his jive-era classics.

Master Shetani has grown rich enough running girls to own real estate off pre-gentrification Times Square. He controls his stable with judicious applications of heroin and violence. But he's grown hardened, and hates himself, lashing out for superficial offenses. California offers opportunities for change, especially when his bottom woman gets a coke-addled vice cop in her pocket. Shetani sets out to reinvent himself.

Detective Rucker, a fiftyish widower, stopped drinking to appease his sweetheart. But he's clearly on a dry drunk, using shows of force to silence his demons, hiding from consequences behind his badge. When he kills a knife-wielding pimp, he handles his regret by diving into a bottle. Turns out, the late Big Cat was Master Shetani's boyhood friend. Now two strong-willed antiheroes have a debt of honor to pay one another.

Iceberg Slim
This novel has three core problems. First is Slim's rudimentary grammar. Though Slim's classics, published from 1967 to 1978, impressed audiences with their mastery of Black street English (some of which Slim probably invented), this prose feels less "street," more "hasty." His strictly subject-object sentences and scanty vocabulary leave me feeling I'm reading a first draft the author never re-read after writing it in one sitting.

Second, Slim writes about sex in very ham-handed language. In a novel about a pimp, we expect copious raunchy content; but Slim writes with the kind of sloppy, overblown terminology I remember from 8th-grade locker room bull sessions. He sounds like a blustering teenager trying to impress underclassmen with his sexual war stories, not a grown man who actually served in the trenches, as both Slim and his characters putatively are.

Third, and most importantly, he doesn't treat his characters equally. Slim, who served a hitch in Leavenworth for pimping, invests more time, ink, and psychological insight into Master Shetani than Detective Rucker. Even Rucker's right-hand man gets page space, and character development, Rucker never gets, possibly because he's nakedly corrupt scum. A character driven to do right actions for wrong reasons doesn't merit Slim's attention.

Not that Slim glamorizes the pimp lifestyle. Slim spent his later years urging pimps to quit the life (his devotion to the girls was somewhat squishier). Accordingly, he paints Master Shetani as morally destitute, a self-hating monstrosity who humiliates women to silence his own inner monologue. He snags a new girl who reminds him of the beloved sister he lost, and shows glimmers of humanity. So naturally he turns her out.

But Slim just doesn't invest in other characters the same way. Russell Rucker stays mostly a cipher throughout the book, a wonderful example of unrealized potential. Maybe that's because Slim knew pimps better than cops, but serious authors overcome knowledge gaps. He could've contacted cops personally for research purposes (which I say, knowing a convicted Black pimp questioning police in 1986 would've ended up face-down on the linoleum).

Knowing what I know now about addiction, Iceberg Slim's career reads like a lifelong quest to stifle childhood demons. Growing up fatherless and geographically unmoored, he spent adulthood struggling against self-doubt. Several characters in this book recount bitter memories of abusive, judgmental mothers, a useful clue. First by dominating women, then by shaming others for doing likewise, Slim probably tried to exert power he'd lost over his life.

Had he published this book during his lifetime, a seasoned editor could've helped Slim refine it into a mature, dangerous investigation of themes running his own life. But right now it reads like an unedited draft, a seed of raw potential begging an experienced gardener's nurturance. As an idea, this is a great book. But as a published novel, it's mainly a curiosity for Slim's most dedicated fans.

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