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In Brief

‘Street Poison,’ ‘The Orpheus Clock,’ and ‘Shots on the Bridge’

Street Poison:

The Biography of Iceberg Slim

By Justin Gifford

Doubleday, 288 pp., $26.95

To parts of the American reading public, few books are as iconic as Iceberg Slim’s “Pimp: The Story of My Life.” First published in 1967, Robert Beck’s vivid, subversive memoir of his years as a pimp and hustler, in and out of prison, is “devastating, original, and brilliant,” writes biographer Justin Gifford; its bombast, boasting, and humor are baked into pop culture, from blaxploitation films to hip-hop lyrics. Yet among white readers, Beck is anything but a household name. Gifford, now an English professor, had never heard of Iceberg Slim himself before working at a South Side Chicago public school. “ ‘Pimp’ was certainly not being taught or read at the University of Chicago,” he points out, but the teenagers he worked with valued the book every bit as much as the Ellison, Wright, and Hurston he recommended to them.

Gifford writes that “as a master teller of tales, [Beck] also occasionally embellished the truth.” That would make him a challenge for any biographer, but Gifford meets it with a combination of solid research and genuine compassion for this complex, often troubled man. He’s especially skillful at placing Beck within the context of his times. A child of the Great Migration, the future Cavanaugh Slim (his pimp name) was born in Chicago in 1918 and grew up amid a striving black middle class that was constantly battling housing and job discrimination, economic insecurity, and a racist criminal justice system. After his mother took up with an alcoholic gambler, Beck turned to hustling himself. “I was sopping up poison from the street like a sponge,” he would write of the life that his books would both glamorize and condemn. “Pimp” and other books by Beck sold 6 million copies by the time he died in 1992, but Gifford points out that like so many other black artists, Beck found himself vastly underpaid by an exploitive white publisher. “I have tried to tell his tale the way he might have wanted: clearly, honestly, and without moralizing,” Gifford writes. By refusing to either idealize or demonize his subject, he succeeds.


The Orpheus Clock:


The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis

By Simon Goodman

Scribner, 352 pp., $28

Simon Goodman, a Los Angeles-based music executive, grew up in postwar England; while the other kids heard and shared war stories, his own father’s “silence on the subject was unwavering.” His father, Bernard, was loving but mysterious, constantly traveling on unnamed missions — haunted, his son sensed, but by what he didn’t know. Bernard’s refusal to talk about the past extended into ancestry and heritage; it wasn’t until late in childhood that Simon learned that the German grandparents who had died in the war “had been, more or less, Jewish.” Only after Bernard’s death did Simon and his brother, Nick, learn that those ancestors, the Gutmanns, had also been wealthy, influential, and extraordinarily prolific collectors of art — all of which was taken from them when the Nazis gained power. Goodman’s account of their attempts to locate and recover the paintings and other art is part family saga, part detective story, and a wholly engrossing read.

The story starts with Goodman’s great-grandfather: Eugen Gutmann, founder of the Dresdner Bank and a thoroughly assimilated German Jew (people often remarked on how much he looked like the Kaiser), whose art collection was an object of both admiration and envy. Gutmann and his family converted to Lutheranism in 1898, but neither that nor their immense wealth could insulate their descendants from the rising tide of “latent anti-Semitism that seemed to lurk just below the German psyche.” No safer was Goodman’s grandfather, Fritz, who settled in Holland after World War I to avoid both family politics and the rumblings of Fascism; part of every Holocaust story’s intrinsic horror is the inexorable spread of Nazism’s corrosive power. “Amid the destruction left by World War II, mere possessions, even valuable paintings, meant relatively little,” Goodman writes. Yet in rescuing his family’s art, Goodman salvages something else. “I no longer suffer from an isolation of rootlessness. My roots are deep and wide, with ancestors that go back many centuries,” he writes. It is a survival and reclamation story that feels like victory.


Shots on the Bridge:

Police Violence and Cover-Up in the Wake of Katrina

By Ronnie Greene

Beacon, 264 pp., $24.95

Although sometimes thought of as a natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina’s effect on New Orleans was mostly man-made. The city escaped the brunt of the hurricane’s landfall; its devastation began a day later, when the levees broke and caused deadly, unprecedented flooding. A new book by Ronnie Greene examines one of the many tragedies that took place while the city was under water, when two groups of unarmed African-American citizens of New Orleans came under heavy fire from a truck full of police officers, some shooting their personal AK-47s in addition to their service revolvers, in an assault on a bridge that left two dead and four wounded. Nearly immediately, Greene writes, “the cover-up took full bloom, and the shooters themselves could see the police narrative unfolding as clearly as the Sunday morning sky.”


Greene, an Associated Press reporter, writes with sensitivity about both race and police culture in New Orleans — a complex brew in the Danziger Bridge shooting, as “white officers huddled together and created the report,” leaving their black and Latino colleagues to (mostly) take the fall. None of the victims had any kind of criminal record — in fact, they had relatives in law enforcement — which complicated but didn’t stop police efforts to paint them as aggressors. While the events themselves are riveting, full of legal twists and turns, Greene’s prose is often leaden and lifeless; one wishes the storyteller here were on a par with this terrific story.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.