RARA-AVIS: Pelecanos: King Suckerman (Review)

From: ejmd ( ejmd@cwcom.net)
Date: 02 Feb 2000

Black and White and Read All Over? George P. Pelecanos, King Suckerman, Serpents Tail/Mask Noir. ISBN 1-85242-610-1. pp. 265. £8.99.

Former armed-robber and bad-ass black man Wilton Cooper teams up with terminal-wigger redneck, Bobby Roy 'B. R.' Clagget and two black country-boys, the Thomas brothers. The path of this dangerous band crosses with that of black record-shop owner, Marcus Clay and his dope-dealing Greek buddy, Dimitri Karras, with grave consequences.

As well as the providing the title of this latest offering from George P. Pelecanos, King Suckerman is also the title of a [fictional] nineteen-seventies 'blaxploitation' flick about a pimp--but 'not any old pimp. The baddest player there ever was' (p. 14). The King Suckerman film is not so much blaxploitation as an Iceberg Slim-style tale of the grimmer aspects of black urban life, of which one of the novel's black characters remarks, 'I bet some white man wrote that movie; produced it, too' (p. 15). This comment serves to raise the question of the status of Pelecanos's text, which is itself an example of a non-black writer representing black experience. Is Pelecanos's novel just another piece of blaxploitation, or is it something more than a wigger-text simply leeching on black style? Similar questions have been raised about the use of popular culture, black style and the representation of black characters in the films of Quentin Tarantino.

King Suckerman invites comparison with Tarantino's films not just because of the centrality of popular culture, black or otherwise--for example: popular music, film, drugs, fashion, television--in the text and in the characters' lives; and not just because of the portrayal of violence and vernacular speech (particularly, perhaps, the emotive terms
'motherfucker' and 'nigger'), all of which are ways in which comparisons might be drawn between this Pelecanos novel and the Tarantino ouevre.

One of the more interesting aspects of this Pelecanos novel, and one of the more interesting aspects of Tarantiono's work, is the narrative structure, the way in which the story is told. Both Pelecanos and Tarantino adopt the story-telling technique of cutting between apparently discrete, disparate, plot-lines which are brought together, carefully crafted into a complex weave of differing points of view. The disorienting shifts in time that characterise Tarantino's narrative style--re-running the same scene from a different point of view--are also employed by Pelecanos. For example, a scene might take place which unfolds as if seen from one character's point-of-view. The reader completes the scene, only to be taken back over it, but from a different point-of-view. While it would be interesting to see how a film version of King Suckerman might be scripted by Tarantino, that is not to be; there is however a film of King Suckerman already in production, starring Sean "Puffy" Combs (aka Puff Daddy).

King Suckerman marks something of a turning-point for Pelecanos. It is not, however, a turning point of quite the same order of magnitude as, say, Walter Mosley's Always Outnumbered Always Outgunned (also published in the UK by Serpents Tail). Mosley's Always Outnumbered Always Outgunned marks a break with a familiar series character and shows Mosley, the writer of several Easy Rawlins novels, maturing and exploring different registers and different techniques. The same can be said--up to a point--of King Suckerman. It shows Pelecanos exploring different registers and different narrative techniques. In this sense Pelecanos is showing signs of maturing as a writer; but, entertaining and well-crafted as this novel is, the lavish praise that is routinely heaped upon him for the frankly rather vapid Stefanos series still seems a little premature.

One of the most grating aspects of Pelecanos's style is the way in which it is like what French sociologist Jean Baudrillard calls a simulacra: a hyperreal simulation, a perfect copy of an original that never existed--hence, one suspects, the gushing reviews and the frequent comparisons to Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and, more recently, Jim Thompson, that are blurbed across the covers of Pelecanos's novels.

That said, Pelecanos does seem now to have gotten away from creating the sense that he is trying too hard to establish both his own and Nick Stefanos's credentials, which permeates the earlier narratives. King Suckerman offers welcome relief from that feeling of writing-as-continual-performance, that gosh, look-at-me/isn't-it-great-to-be-looked-at-ness that encumbers the Stefanos novels. But while King Suckerman is a great improvement over Pelecanos's earlier novels, there is still some slack in the text. For example, the baggy prose that constitutes chapters six through to nine could be much crisper: the present 42 pages could be pared down to fifteen or twenty pages, with the effect that the pacing becomes much tighter.

Nor has Pelecanos been bold enough to leave behind the certainty (not to say unit sales and easy praise?) of the Stefanos series this time out. King Suckerman is something of a half-way house between a bold new venture and a 'prequel' to the Stefanos novels. The young Nick Stefanos is shown in his early days as a dope-head domestic electrical goods salesman in Nutty Nathan's. In attempting to make King Suckerman serve as a prequel to the Stefanos novels, Pelecanos shows that the line between 'consistency' and 'repetition' is a thin one which, here at least, Pelecanos appears to follow with some uncertainty.

In the first Nick Stefanos novel, A Firing Offence, for example, Stefanos walks 'down the noisy wooden steps to the stock room. The musty odour of damp cardboard met me as I descended the stairs' (p. 22) while in King Suckerman, 'Karras went down a shaky set of wooden stairs. The musty odour of damp cardboard hit him as he stepped onto a concrete floor littered with warranty cards and cigarette butts' (p. 155).

In A Firing Offence, 'McGinnes pulled a film canister and a small brass pipe out of his pocket and shook some pot out of the vial' (p. 22). In King Suckerman, 'McGinnes ... took a film canister and a small brass pipe from his pocket and shook some pot into the bowl' (p. 159).

Stefanos describes himself in A Firing Offence as 'usually wearing some kind of rock-and-roll T-shirt, tight Levi's cuffed cigarette style, Sears workboots on my feet' (p. 22) while in King Suckerman 'Stefanos
[was] wearing Levi's cigarette style, one turn-up at the cuff [...] a pair of Sears work boots and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt (p. 156).

Even though these are the same characters in the same location, the similarity in the descriptive prose goes beyond the call of consistency and comes, on the basis of the evidence here, uncomfortably close to laziness or self-plagiarism.

The themes of fatherhood and male-relationships give King Suckerman an extra dimension. The main male characters lack the steadying influence of a father figure. Heroes Marcus Clay and Dimitri Karras are men without fathers as, of course, is Nick Stefanos. Their relationships with women are often obstacles to, or tests of, the depth of their
'real' relationships with other men.

While drug-dealer Eddie Marchetti is a 'bad father' to Vivian Lee, his symbolic daughter, his associate, Clarence Tate, is a caring, nurturing father to his own 'motherless' daughter. Bad-guy B. R. Clagget has a savage bully of a step-father in the place of a 'real' father which
'explains' his deviancy. Mega-baddie Wilton Cooper cuts across the lives of all these men like an awful father-figure, the Titan who must answer to his sons.

For all its right-on style, King Suckerman retains a sense of conservatism and there are some scenes of cloying moralism. Marcus Tate, for example, often speaks with the novel's moral voice, openly courting regeneration by continually demonstrating self-awareness and regretting his wrongdoing. Even pussy-hound Karras exercises some moral judgement with respect to his drug-dealing and his sexual inclinations. Episodes of male-bonding intersperse the action scenes of a novel that can also be seen as a tale of cliched masculine loyalty.

Male sexuality is something of a cliche here too: the good-guys are shown as 'healthily' heterosexual and get to grapple with the more profound aspects of relationships with women; the baddies are homosexual or inept heterosexuals (suggesting an equivalence between social deviancy and 'sexual deviancy') while the naive young white-boys seem to spend a disproportionate amount of story-time polishing Onan's flag-pole.

As noted, the film King Suckerman plays like an Iceberg Slim story--the tale of an unrelenting black pimp, mean and hard on his hoes, fucked over by The Way Things Are. For record-shop employee Rasheed, the film tells it like it is. The film also prompts Wilton Cooper to buy a copy of Iceberg Slim's Pimp for B. R.--telling him, 'most of what you saw in that movie ... they took that shit straight from Ice, man. Read that and you'll know what's really going on' (p. 77).

Is there really any point then in Pelecanos bringing his formula and polish to black experience when, thanks to Iceberg Slim (and the Payback Press), it's available in its raw state? Perhaps the difference is that Iceberg Slim offers an authentic version of black experience--for characters such as Wilton Cooper and Rasheed, who know how it is--while Pelecanos writes for the white boys: the Dewey Schmidts, the Jimmy Castles and the Jerry Baluzys.

Pelecanos is improving as a writer and a stylist--the reservations discussed above notwithstanding. There's still a lot of promise in Pelecanos. Let's hope he hasn't peaked yet.


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