Trick Baby charts the rise of White Folks, a white Negro who uses his colour as a trump card in the tough game of the Con. Blue-eyed, light-haired, and white-skinned, White Folks is the most incredible con man the ghetto ever spawned, a hustler in the jungle of Southside Chicago where only the sharpest survive. With his partner Blue, an old hand who teaches him the tricks of the trade, White Folks rises to the top of his profession. The cons he pulls off get more and more lucrative and dangerous until one day they go too far….
Title: Trick Baby | Author: Iceberg Slim | Publisher: Canongate Books | Pages: 284 | ISBN: 9781847674319 | Publication date: 1969 | Source: Self-purchased
‘Trick Baby’ is an American crime novel from the 1960s from black writer Robert Beck, better known as Iceberg Slim. Beck was a pimp and hustler turned author who became an important voice in African American writing in the 60s and 70s. Two of his books were filmed and they’ve been championed by more recent figures in black culture like Snoop Dogg and Ice T.
His first book was a heavily autobiographical novel, ‘Pimp’. ‘Trick Baby’ was his second and tells the story of White Folks, a young man with a white father and a black mother who is pale skinned enough to pass as white. Set mostly in the 1930s and 40s, it follows White Folks from childhood and through his life as a young man who falls into the life of a conman in Chicago. It’s a book that is packed with incident, with detailed and fascinating descriptions of the cons Folks and his partner run. That side of the book makes for very entertaining reading and the plot charts Folks’ growing success and relationships, in particular with a wealthy white woman.
Race plays a big part in the book, with the main character finding himself out of place in both the white and black worlds. It’s handled with passion and the prejudice expressed by the white characters is horrifyingly effective. The gap between the two worlds is stark and the depiction of the slum areas of Chicago is memorable. It’s an often moving read, and Folks is a sympathetic character for all his flaws. His relationship with his mother is particularly well handled, and the source of his many insecurities. That conflict, between the confident trickster and the uncertain young man, is at the heart of the book and it works well.
The treatment of female and LGBT characters is hard to take, but the book manages to tread the narrow line between showing prejudice and actively condoning it. The writing is a little rough at times, but it has a raw power that fits the subject matter and makes for a compelling read.