Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Make My Funk the P(elecanos) Funk!

King Suckerman
by George Pelecanos
Reviewed by Anthony
5 out of 5 stars
It’s summer and everyone we know has come out tonight to see the big, new movie. It’s the one we’ve all been talking about: King Suckerman. A movie about the baaaaadest of the bad. A movie about a pimp who is taking it straight to the man. A movie that’s, in all honesty, probably going to be exactly the same as a hundred other Blaxploitation movies—but that’s okay. Like I said, it’s summer and not just any summer but it’s the US’s birthday, the bicentennial. 1976. Here we all are, all the young people, and for the next 90 minutes we’re going to be free from all thoughts, worries, prejudices, anything else that makes up that troublesome thing called reality that lurks in wait outside in the July heat.

And things start off well. The opening credits roll up on the screen and there’s that funky theme, because every superhero—even one that’s a pimp—needs his or her own theme song. (Don’t know what I mean? Then allow me to edify your eardrums, baby:

"Super Fly"-Curtis Mayfield

"Shaft"-Issac Hayes

"Hammer’sTheme"-Solomon Burke

"Cleopatra Jones”-JoeSimon) And the girls, man some of the girls are even dancing in the aisles. Digging those out of sight scratchy guitar riffs set to the pulse pound of bass and drums and there’s the singer’s voice already telling you exactly what you already know. He’s telling you about what you’re about to see: King Suckerman. This is a James Bond Movie. A superhero movie. An escape.

This is going to be fun.

But then something happens. The title character, the King, is no charmer. He is no Carl Weathers or Fred Williamson. He’s big and ugly and vicious. The crowd goes silent as up on the silver screen the King beats one of his prostitutes with a wire coat-hanger. Beats her bloody and ragged and chip-toothed. Then he sends her out to peddle her ass, the blood still dripping from her wounds, and she better not even think of showing her fucking face until she brings back enough money to prove she’s worth a fucking cent.

And so the movie continues its gritty descent into urban hell until we have the final closing shot of the big, bad King Suckerman sitting in a prison cell, rotting away from syphilis…staring right into the camera with his holocaust eyes.

People, the ones who decided to stay through the entire movie, leave the theater in silence. And somewhere among the press of people, an acne-scarred white boy with a ratty-afro turns to the large, powerful black man sitting beside him and asks, “Is that really how it is, Wilton?”

“Yeah, little brother,” Wilton Cooper says, “that’s the stone truth.”

And maybe I paraphrase here, but the nature of this scene and what these two killers say strikes a deep and dark chord that reverberates throughout the course of this book. This blaxploitation movie, from which the title for George Pelecanos’s second novel in his DC Quartet derives its name, stands as a metaphor for the whole of the novel: it’s the subliminal space where reality and fiction blur.

Wilton Cooper and B.R. Clagget are living their own warped and violent fictions. Each sees themselves as heroes in their own self-framed movie screens. But whereas Clagget, a shotgun-toting piece of white trash, sees himself as some kind of Superfly waiting to bloom; Wilton Cooper has a lizard-like understanding that, if he’s any kind of hero, then he is an existential hero burning his way to the credit roll of a nihilistic 35 mm. Not that this difference in perception matters much when the two hook up at a Drive-In in North Carolina. Cooper watches as Clagget kills a man working the film booth, using gunshots in the movie to mask his own, and decides this kid would make a good addition for his crew. Clagget joins up with Cooper almost immediately, excited by the chance that a real-deal cool character like Cooper will in turn think he is cool. And so, along with two lowlife brothers, Russell and Ronald Thomas, the gang heads on up in Cooper’s sweet ride to Washington DC, where Cooper has his sight on running a drug deal with some bikers for a small-time loser of a gangster Eddie Spags.

Eddie Spags is a from an Italian Mafia family out of New Jersey, but was sent to Washington DC so that he’d basically be out of the way of the real family business. And you can’t really blame them too much: when your nickname is Eddie Spaghetti, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be a fuck-up. And he fucks up royally here while trying to show off to Cooper and his boys. Eddie also sells premium weed to various low level pushers like Dimitri Karras. So when Dimitri comes with his friend Marcus Clay to pick up the weed—with Cooper and his thugs hanging around in the background— and Eddie sees that his dead-beat hippie girlfriend Vivian is making eyes for the rugged and athletic Dimitri Karras, he decides to put Vivian in her place with the back of his hand. On reflex, Dimitri punches Eddie and then things get out of hand quickly. Before they know it, Dimitri and Marcus are walking out of Eddie’s office with twenty grand, a pound of weed, and Eddie’s girlfriend.

Humiliated, Eddie turns to the amused Wilton Cooper and tells him to go retrieve his money. And so, Eddie unwittingly lets loose the devil this holiday weekend in DC circa 1976.

In some ways, the scene plays out sort of nonsensically. One moment everyone is shooting the shit, the next guns are drawn and insults are thrown. For a catalyst that sets the action of the book in motion, it seems almost entirely based on ego and machismo. Which is exactly the point, and is one of the reasons that this book is sort of a crazy work of genius on George Pelecanos’s part.

While the movie within the book, King Suckerman is a deconstruction of the over-the-top criminal glorification and the plastic-sheen of a commoditized idea of black culture, the Washington DC in which Pelecanos’ novel takes place stands as a counterpoint to this brutal reality by constantly merging into Hollywood fantasy, overall creating a postmodern crime novel that tackles the author’s favorite themes, such as identity and friendship in the face of various cultural and racial tensions.

These are displayed most candidly with the heroes of this book, Dimitri Karras and Marcus Clay. Marcus is a hard-working black man that owns his own independent record store (with the awesome name Real Right Records), while Dimitri makes a living off of selling weed to teenagers. Marcus is a Vietnam vet, Dimitri skipped out on the draft by getting an English degree. And the two have been best friends since they were kids. And even now, as they reach the end of their twenties, they still find time to drive around, listen to music, smoke a little reefer, and shoot some hoops. But the main difference is that Marcus is responsible and fairly straight-laced—that is, until Marcus let’s himself get talked into riding along with Dmitri for a drug deal with Eddie Spags.

The pacing of the rest of the novel even matches most of the low-budget Blaxploitation movies that I have seen. Sections of those movies will appear to be aimless at times, seeming to be an excuse to have characters do things that look cool to a backing soundtrack that is usually the coolest part of the scene. But no section in this book is placed within the narrative to stand as “cool” filler. Pelecanos uses these moments to present the allure of the 1970s and many of the attitudes that prevailed pop-culture, especially the ones hijacked straight from black culture; which, in turn, is set as a counterpoint to the very real personal decisions the characters must make within their own lives, if they are self-aware enough to realize the fact.

Are Cooper and his gang self-aware enough? Not so much. Their lives are a perpetual search for the next high, be that from an actual drug or from acts of senseless violence, all the time trying to assure every person they meet that they are the “coolest” person in the room.

But Dimitri is starting to reach that self-awareness himself as he realizes that he is getting older and that there is very little he has meaningful in his life besides his friendship with Marcus. And even though Marcus will still hang out and play with Dimitri, he is a man who has seen the real violence that flows through the world, and knows that there comes a time when one must be thankful and responsible towards the people and things in his or her life that matter.

With each of the characters’ various perspectives on display, Pelecanos once again creates a panoramic of a place in a moment in time. And here is the 70’s as he remembers it as a teenager, but with the cynical lens of an older, wiser man. He does well to neither make this book a condemnation or an act of indulgent nostalgia. Pelecanos has said before in interviews that his PI character Nick Stefanos is in a lot of ways a fictionalized version of himself. And here in King Suckerman we have Nick in a cameo appearance as a careless and headstrong 19 year-old. And I can’t help but wonder what Nick even really remembers about how it really was.

1 comment:

  1. Solid!

    I actually prefer this Mayfield tune from Superfly over the Superfly theme: