KING SUCKERMAN Book Review By Michael Stark
Think fast. It’s pop culture trivia night at the Cassaday Tavern in New Brunswick, NJ and you have the choice of one of the following famous ringers for your team: Quentin Tarantino, Diablo Cody, Nick Hornby or George Pelecanos. Answer me quick, bro, who the hell ya gonna pick?
You’re choosing not cause you want to get stinking drunk and shoot the shit with the guy or hand them your precious jotted-on-the-back-of-a-napkin idea of a webisode, but to actually win this fucking thing. There’s a 20-pound smoked turkey as the grand prize and your doll baby back home is just jonesing for some proper stuffing, cranberry sauce and tryptophan.
Obviously, all the aforementioned are completely fluent in American pop and trash culture. You’d probably do no wrong with any of ‘em. Now, Hornby might flub a few of the sports related questions, but so would I -- and I’m a bloody national.
Time’s up, bro. I believe the only one that would definitely lead you to a drumstick wielding victory dance would be Mr. Pelecanos.
Why am I so sure? Cause in King Suckerman, cool references shoot out at you like hydra heads at some mutant carny whack-a-mole booth. Throughout the whole book, he deftly defers to dozens of the coolest flicks, tunes, reads, muscle cars and basketball moves in anything I’ve ever seen before -- I’m talking in any form of media.
His opening gambit is two hard-broiled paragraphs that not only gets the story jump-started, but somehow casually name drops: Five Fingers of Death, Black Caesar, James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York”, Angels Hard as They Come and The Master Gunfighter, an oater starring both Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack) and Ron O’Neil (superfly).
One wonders if Little Pelecanos had been conceived during a grind house triple bill at the local drive-in.
GP, as you may know, was a writer and producer for HBO’s The Wire. An ex journalist, he’s also written some of the grittiest, hyper-realistic stuff (Shame the Devil and Hard Revolution) I’ve ever read. Stephen King has called him "The greatest living American crime writer." And, has Uncle Stevie ever steered us wrong?
Now, King Suckerman is a little less noir neorealsim and far more fun and funky than his other reads. I discovered this book about 12 years ago while waiting in an underground, alternative medical clinic where they were gonna guinea pig me for a few weeks of questionable treatments which would either cure me or kill me. (It did neither) So, I’m in the waiting room, scared out of my mind, and I find this garish green paperback with a dude with a huge ‘fro on the cover. I picked it up and immediately started laughing out loud. I was pretty thankful -- it totally took the edge off the grim situation I was getting myself into. And, even then, as this quack center was about to drain my lifesavings, I thought to myself. “Damn, this book would make a great fucking movie!”
The action is set in DC during the sweltering Bicentennial summer. Just about every character is itching to see the new super pimp movie that’s about to hit the silver screens, King Suckerman. “Not any old pimp, The baddest player that ever was. The man with the Master Plan Who’d Be Takin’ it to the Man.”
Marcus Clay, our hero, owns a not so thriving record store. It’s a far cooler, more soulful establishment than the one John Cusack had in High Fidelity. Charismatic Clay could also easily steal any of Cusack’s old flames and kick his puny, white ass in the process. See, the guy did time in ‘Nam and he basically just wants to lay low, run his business and stay out of trouble.
Unfortunately, his best friend and hoops shooting buddy, Dimitri Karras, is a trouble magnet. He’s an aimless pothead who deals a bit on the side to make ends meet. He’s also is a little misguided, debating that Robin Trower is in the same fucking league as Hendrix. What heresy! His record collection contains Captain Beefheart and Big Star, so he’s instantly likeable. Well, to us music snobs anyway.
With his usual connection on Vacay, Karras and Clay get their weed directly this week from the low-level-mook-mobster, Eddie Spags. They enter his warehouse right in the middle of a coke deal about to go bad. A deal with some rather bad-ass ex-con mothers just up from South Carolina.
When Karras is caught eyeing Spag’s hot, underage girlfriend, she gets a slap across the maw and the guns suddenly come out.
Our plucky, somewhat stoned heroes walk out of there with the gal, a pile of money that isn’t theirs and two different set of killers now hopped up on revenge.
The dudes from the Carolinas aren’t ones you would ever want to cross. Wilton Cooper, the movie-loving head psycho, has all the best scene stealing, Samuel L. Jackson lines. He picks up the “White-boy-wanna-be-black-boy cracker", Bobby Roy Clagget, at the drive-in after the kid kills the projectionist just for smiling at him too much. “You ever think, B.R. – and I’m just makin’ conversation here – that the man was smilin’ just to be friendly?”
The Kid is the ultimate loose cannon and patsy. Think Elisa Cook Jr, but with a petri dish of acne all over his face. The poor sap keeps getting himself beat up, shot and buggered.
Stylistically, its very much Elmore Leonard charted territory. Kind of his Rum Punch after Tarantino changed it to the blaxploitation homage, Jackie Brown. This actually wouldn’t be a bad gig for one of the many Tarantino copycats that have since spawned after Pulp Fiction.
But, Pelecanos does his hard-boiled noir with both heart and soul. It’s all about taking a stand, loyalty to your best bud and even redemption. Karras, realizing how wasteful his drug dealing life has been, makes amends to the great karmic wheel by taking on Wilton’s gang just as the floorshow of Fourth of July fireworks fall over the Capital.
That character arc isn’t something you see much in these Tarantino cover band flicks. I loved the heart as much as all the jive talking.
And, of course, I adored the gazillion pop culture references. From the Kool cigarettes they smoke to the National Bohemian Beer preferred by the motorcycle gang the southern psychos will tangle with.
Now, Scriptshadow doesn’t necessarily want to lighten the burden of product-seeking producers. There are just a ton of books we’d love to see made into movies. Natch, Our Sunday reviews.
Hell, King Suckerman is already franchisable. Clay and Karras will show up in three more of Pelecanos’s “D.C. Quartet Series”. I’m surprised HBO didn’t pick this up already. It would make a fun little cable series like Justified.
As far as I can tell, this gem has been sitting for 12 years in development hell. It was originally option by Sean “Puffy” Combs with his hopes to play Clay. Personally, I can’t really see Puff Daddy in a hyper violent, stoner flick, but what do I know? He’s the mogul; I’m the schlub. I gotta give the man cred for picking a fine, fine project though.
Suckerman is the kind of material that sucks you right in. It’s a fast and furiously funny read. I recommend that Scriptshadow followers start here and then explore Pelecanos’s weightier works.
And, if ya wanna crib some kools-tinged dialogue, you might as well learn it from one of the old masters.
WHAT I LEARNED: Yes, guys, screenwriters can learn a thing or two from prose writers. Open up a tome every once in a while! (Disclaimer. Stark does own a used bookstore.)
Pelecanos, like Elmore Leonard, effortlessly cuts from one character’s POV and storyline to another. Their various plotlines will eventually intersect as their narratives all blend together. This isn’t always the easiest trick for a scripter to pull off. I’m thinking it worked well in Go and Jackie Brown. So, for discussion, which films have tightly pulled this technique off and which films have ended up just a confused jumbled mess? Please, chime in.
Stark’s further rants and ramblings can be followed in his blog: www.michaelbstark.blogspot.com