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Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim.


Street Poison

The Biography of Iceberg Slim

By Justin Gifford

An assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, Justin Gifford published his first book, an Edgar Allan Poe Award finalist titled Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, in 2013. Street Poison is his second book.

THE TOPIC: As a child, Robert "Iceberg Slim" Beck (1918-1992) gaped at the well-dressed pimps and prostitutes that patronized his mother's Milwaukee beauty salon. Years later, he passed up a college education for the easy money and hedonism of street life, ruthlessly tyrannizing his own ring of prostitutes for 25 years. At 42, however, Beck felt too old to continue. Newly released from prison, he moved to Los Angeles, where he penned the first of eight books, Pimp: The Story of My Life (1967), which sold nearly 2 million copies by 1973. "To his critics, Iceberg Slim is a misogynist who wrote trashy paperbacks that promote violence against vulnerable young women," writes Gifford. "However, the real story of Beck's life is more complex and contradictory than ... these simplistic views suggest." Essentially, Gifford argues, "there would be no street literature, no Blaxploitation, no Hip-Hop the way we know them today without [the culturally transformative] Pimp."

Doubleday. 288 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780385538343

Buffalo News ****

"Gifford's Street Poison is an essential document in the cultural reappraisal of Robert Beck.... It's a grimy, dangerously intriguing world, but Street Poison makes the leap to biographical greatness when Beck attempts to leave the pimp life behind, and eventually turns his background into the basis for writing" CHRISTOPHER SCHOBERT

Los Angeles Times ***1/2

"In Street Poison, Gifford patiently crafts a narrative that shows how Beck, a Chicago pimp, became the godfather of hip-hop, an integral cog in Hollywood's Blaxploitation era and one of the most-read black authors of the 20th century. In addition to providing phenomenally researched material into the life and writings of Beck, including FBI files, unpublished fiction and letters written from Beck to his publisher, Gifford provides us with robust historical, pointed political context for new and seasoned readers of Beck's novels Pimp, Trick Baby and Mama Black Widow" KIESE LAYMON

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ***1/2

"Gifford's thoroughly researched but smoothly written book offers a remarkable amount of detail on Beck's time in the Wisconsin penal system. In prison, Beck not only studied pimping and criminality but also read widely, creating an eclectic foundation for his later books, which blend explicit, unflinching pulp tales with a militant skepticism of white capitalism." JIM HIGGINS

New York Times ***1/2

"Mr. Gifford's taut biography is important and overdue.... His disquisitions on topics like the nature of individual cities and prisons aren't well integrated. The narrative comes to full stops. But there are many compensations." DWIGHT GARNER

Washington Post ***1/2

"Gifford's greatest achievement is placing Beck's life within the context of larger social, political and economic changes. ... Beck's life as a writer is inevitably less compelling than his decades as a pimp." JON MICHAUD

Washington Post **

"Beck is not, as this biography claims, 'one of the most influential figures of the past fifty years,' 'the literary godfather of hip hop' or someone who 'transformed American popular culture.' In overestimating the impact and influence of its subject, Street Poison hinders readers from according Beck the more modest (but still significant) attention that his life and legacy deserve." ADAM BRADLEY


Although some critics disputed Gifford's claims that Beck's legacy includes hip-hop, gangsta rap, Blaxploitation films, and street fiction, they generally agreed that, despite the failure to explore this legacy deeply, this painstakingly researched biography is rich in atmosphere, perspective, and remarkable characters. Gifford paints a harrowing picture of the underworld where Beck made his living, placing his subject squarely within the cultural, political, and economic forces shaping African American lives before and after World War II. The critics cited some lackluster prose, clunky digressions, and narrative lapses but still deemed Street Poison "complex, eloquent and ferocious" (Buffalo News). "It's a book for devotees to read and savor," notes the Washington Post, "but for those new to this author, there remains only one source for getting to know Iceberg Slim, and that is his imperishable memoir."



A timeless book to be read by all


One of the best of its genre

*** GOOD

Enjoyable, particularly for fans

of the genre


Some problems, approach with caution


Not worth your time
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Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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