Friday, June 26, 2020

The Book You Have to Read:
“King Suckerman,” by George Pelecanos

(Editor’s note: This is the 164th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
King Suckerman reads like a blaxploitation blast from the past, with its references to that film genre, the soundtrack of the era (this tale is set in 1976, and the U.S. bicentennial is only days away), the vocabulary of young black inner-city America (with a profusion of the “N” word), and the glorification of the urban anti-hero. But beneath all of that, inextricable from the nonstop action in this 1997 George Pelecanos masterpiece, is a spot-on critique of racism, cultural appropriation, personal responsibility, and the hypocrisy of popular culture.

The themes in King Suckerman are seamlessly integrated into the story’s action. That’s as true when Real Right Records owner Marcus Clay admonishes a young employee for filing Jimi Hendrix albums under Soul, not Rock—really, a racial commentary here—as it is when the blasts of bicentennial fireworks blend with the gunfire of the good guys liberating themselves from the threat of nihilistic criminals at the book’s conclusion.

This adventure begins at a small-town North Carolina drive-in movie theater, where Wilton Cooper, a cool and manipulative ex-con, witnesses Bobby Roy “BR” Clagget—“a white boy, wanna-be-a-black-boy cracker” who sports an afro, four-inch heels, and a shirt with “Tarzan swinging on the vines”—strut into the projection building and murder his boss in cold blood. Cooper wants a trigger man for an upcoming dope deal, and in Clagget he sees talent, as well as a kid much in need of direction. Cooper approaches him, and after a smooth Q & A, the sure-handed sociopath expertly plays the stone-faced kid, calls him his “little brother,” and seals the deal for Clagget to star in the blaxploitation flick playing in his head.

Pelecanos’ plot revolves mostly around Cooper and Clagget’s crime spree, but a lesser story line, one quite salient on a thematic level, is the much-anticipated premiere of the blaxploitation movie King Suckerman (“The Man with the Master Plan Who Be Taking It to the Man”). It’s the talk of Washington, D.C., but the film turns out to be a huge disappointment to all, save for a few people. The audience expected the movie to offer the standard blaxploitation trope of anti-hero pimp as badass role model, but King Suckerman turns that stereotype upside down. In the end, the character of King Suckerman dies broken and behind bars, the film bombs, and a crestfallen BR is told the facts of life. “Little Brother?” says the nihilistic Cooper, who knows what he’s talking about. “That was the real deal.”

Delving deeper into the movie, Rasheed, the “woke” employee of Marcus Clay who miscategorized Hendrix, sees things differently. He recognizes racism and the perpetuation of stereotypes for profit, and fires off this bit of wisdom: “Those white producers tryin’ to exploit our culture, showin’ us what our ghetto thing is all about. And us, givin’ them our money like stone suckers.”

Then Rasheed explains it from the angle of a film fan who wants escapism and the kind of empowerment that can only come from fantasy. Outside the theater, he schools a coworker in this exchange:
“You know that picture’s not gonna do any business.”

“Oh yeah?”

“’Cause it tells the truth. And the brothers out here, they don’t want the truth.”
Back in the real world, where Cooper and Clagget live, the truth gets lurid quickly. Before they visit a biker gang to score some cocaine for an out-of-state associate, they pay a $20,000 finder’s fee to Eddie Marchetti, the creep who brokered the deal. Marchetti is a small-time fence and weed dealer who wishes to make it big, but his intelligence and gangster pretense are laughable. His right-hand man, Clarence Tate, runs the business due to Marchetti’s incompetence; but even so, Marchetti treats him, and his own girlfriend, Vivian Lee, with a lack of respect that’s as breathtaking as a punch to the gut.

Cooper and Marchetti are conducting business when Marcus Clay and his Greek pal, Dimitri Karras, approach them. Karras is a D.C. weed dealer in need of a pound. A slacker of little consequence, he’d rather play pick-up basketball and get high than find a job. Clay, meanwhile, is a Vietnam vet. (These same two characters will appear in subsequent Pelecanos novels. But in King Suckerman, they make their bones as stand-up guys who take personal responsibility for their actions and finish what they start.)

(Right) Author George Pelecanos

As this scene develops, Marchetti begins to throw his weight around and berate his associate, Tate; then he slaps Vivian. Karras, in turn, belts him. Clay disarms BR and knocks his front teeth out. As Clay and Karras leave, Clay impulsively grabs the $20,000, and Karras steers Vivian away from her toxic relationship. Karras and Clay know full well that they’ve put themselves into a position only violence can solve.

Cooper, Clagget, and their associates move rapidly to conclude the dope deal, which under Cooper’s direction becomes a massacre. A meeting is arranged for the return of the $20,000 to Cooper, but everybody knows that’s a pretense for an ambush, and King Suckerman, the book, ends even bloodier than the movie. By the close of this tale, Clay and Karras have grown a set, and more importantly, Karras has grown up.

It’s interesting to imagine how King Suckerman might be viewed, were it first released in our present age of “wokeness.” Pelecanos’ frequent use of the “N” word could be denounced as racist, and because King Suckerman was written by a Caucasian it might be shouted down as cultural appropriation. But the novel is not a cheap or shallow representation of lower-income African Americans. It’s the story of the melting pot, of interactions between African Americans and Caucasians, and a hard excoriation of stereotypes, as exemplified by BR Clagget, and the titular King Suckerman.

The tag line of King Suckerman, the motion picture—“The Man with the Master Plan Who Be Taking It to the Man”—may sound clumsy and redundant, but Pelecanos, who’s published 21 books and was part of the team behind HBO-TV’s The Wire, is neither of those. Exactly which “man” is Suckerman taking it to? The overlords of the society that oppress him? Or, more likely, to himself, “the man with the plan,” and the obvious sucker for the meretricious lure of the criminal life so glorified in popular culture.

1 comment:

michael said...

George made a name for himself fairly early in his career. He was one of the new crime and mystery writers that worked on topical societal issues including race. This retro review of King Suckerman is timely and given that the novel is set in the 70s makes reading now, all the more provoking.
As small press publisher Scorpion Press I was fortunate to issue the book as a specual edition. Demand was high and I believe it sold quickly. I followed it with Right as Rain.