Throughout Iceberg Slim’s literary career, he wrote to dissuade his readers away from the Life. As such, his stories of the urban ghettos of Chicago and the Midwest served as not just political critiques on an oppressive system but also as didactic narratives. Of course, some individuals misread these cues, as Slim himself writes about in “Rappin About the Pimp Game.” Today, I want to briefly discuss one of Slim’s short stories, “Lonely Suite,” from his collection Airtight Willie and Me (1985).
“Lonely Suite” relates to a long literary tradition of the Gothic in American literature. Specifically, the story uses the motif of the decaying house, in this case the hotel suite, that serves as a symbolic representation of decay and tragedy. I’ve written about this imagery before in relation to Ellen Glasgow’s “Jordan’s End,” but the decaying domicile can be seen in everything from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and into contemporary literature such as Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.
From the opening of the story, Slim plays up the Gothic elements in the descriptions of weather outside of his window. As he restlessly tosses in bed, “[t]he moon-drenched branches of a wind-mauled tree outside the bedroom window cavorted spectral shadows about the suite” (41). Beginning with a nightmarish night with a storm outside that casts “spectral shadows” on the walls, “Lonely Suite” creates an atmosphere that echos stories like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” or the beginning of Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow.
Told in a first person point of view, the narrative chronicles Slim’s journey from “a nineteen-year-old pimp novice” to a grizzled veteran of the Game at thirty five. Throughout his ascendancy, Slim sees the suite as the pinnacle of success. At the beginning of the story, Slim, who only has one woman in his stable, watches after the suite for Gold Streak, that is until some men bust into the suite looking for its owner.
As the narrative progresses, the suite changing hands multiple times, and Opal, Slim’s childhood friend turned dope dealer, occupies the suite when Slim returns to Chicago. Coming from a middle-class family, Slim always saw Opal as someone who would make it out of the “ghetto torture chambers,” but he comes to realize that appearances aren’t always what they seem because Opal’s mother wanted to climb the social ladder, and since her father would do anything for his wife, he turned to a life of crime to help her reach the top of the mountain.
When they were younger, Opal had dreams of becoming an artist then possibly an actress, and Slim would think about becoming a lawyer like Clarence Darrow. However, because of their situation, Opal states, “there was never even a rainbow . . . much less a pot of fucking gold!” (53). Rather than Hollywood or the courthouse, the dream became the suite at the top of the most lavish black hotel in Chi town. Both Opal and Slim realize this dream, but it turns out to be nothing more than a decaying facade.
As a teenager, the suite appeared like an extravagant pad to Slim; however, when he finally becomes the suite’s tenant, it turns into something grotesque. After his initial excitement, Slim surveys his surroundings and feels “betrayed” and “depressed” because the “once bright complexion was brassy and pocked hideously with an ancient smog of nicotine. She [the suite] was sleazed and greasy from the legions of junkie joy-poppers who had fouled her rotten with their shooting galleries” (56). The once magnificent suite mirrors Slim’s life.
The end of the story sees Slim like the suite, a once lively man now haggard with age. At thirty five, Slim has one more girl in stable, Rachel. Maurice, a twenty-two-year-old upstart pimp, steals Rachel from Slim, and as Slim puts on a show for the young gun, he thinks about himself at that time in his life: “I remembered my own pristine face, and I felt a pang of sympathy that he was dumping his youth and life down the rat hole of pimping” (62). Like the suite, Slim sees himself as once “pristine” and magnificent, but the fourteen years he spent in the Life took that away. Slim continues by thinking about his “insane desire to preach [Maurice] out of his poisonous trance”; however, he feels that Maurice is too far gone already (62).
Slim does give Maurice a word of advice though before he leaves with Rachel. He leans into Maurice’s ear and whispers, “Son, take an old player’s advice. Don’t hold on to the brass ring until it turns to shit” (63). Slim knows the pain and trouble that Maurice’s path will lead him down, but the young man refuses to listen. Maurice, one day, may occupy the suite and have the same thoughts that Opal and Slim did, but we will never know.
Slim eventually decides to leave the suite, the site of his one-time dream now turned nightmare. He packs his bags, lights a cigarette, and sits on the bed. Becoming overcome with fright, “ghostly shadows” cover the room as he uncontrollably weeps for Opal, Maurice, Rachel, and others. He gets up, walks to the door, looks back, and tells the suite good luck. This image, which mirrors the opening of Slim lying in bed as shadows cover the walls and he counts the gold ruffles on the canopy highlights the decay that the suite represents in Slim’s own existence. The suite becomes an extension of Slim and reflects the realities of the Life and the trauma and pain that such a path leads to.
Overall, we should look at “Lonely Suite” as a Gothic text that needs to be examined in relation to that genre. There are stylistic aspects, from a descriptive and psychological aspect, that echo texts like the ones mentioned above. There are underlying forces that, while never explicitly stated, work underneath the surface and lead the characters towards paths that cause them to leave their dreams behind. Slim tackles these issues of systematic racism and an oppressive society elsewhere in his works, but they exist on a subterranean level here.
Of course, this is not all that I can say about “Lonely Suite.” There is more to the way that Slim plays with the Gothic genre, and there is more with the narrative that needs to be explored. However, I hope this post gives you some insight into the story and makes you want to go out and pick up Airtight Willie and Me.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Slim. Iceberg. “Lonely Suite.” Airtight Willie and Me: The Story of the South’s Black Underworld. New York: Cash Money Content, 2013. 41-64.