Vanilla Slim: An Improbable Pimp in the Empire of Lust
Bob Armstrong has a universal disease: He suffers from selective morality. He’s a crotchety white guy in San Francisco, nearing the close of a bad journalism career, who shakes his fist when drivers run red lights. He’s also a pimp.
His moniker, Vanilla Slim, is a nod to a pioneer in the pimp/writer career, the African-American author and subject of The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim. Vanilla is the memoir of a frustrated writer with a patchy freelance résumé—do you put porn reviews on your résumé?—who spends a year arranging liaisons with some very expensive women he calls the Zen Dolls. He has a healthy amount of unfocused rage against society, a history of personal and professional failure, and nothing to lose. The real question is whether he has a soul.
Not much happens here. Girls come and go, and we learn a good deal about the midnight desires of men. Armstrong writes some articles for the San Francisco Chronicle and does enough speed to powder a slope. His prose at its best is a Bret Easton Ellis-minus-the-trust-fund whirlwind look at high-end prostitution. But he also suffers from an inability to rein in his often-expository dialogue and the most nauseating of linguistic indulgences: “Charles, Havana’s regular, calls wanting some lip-dancing on his love truncheon.” Seriously?
He litters his book with cultural asides, which sometimes work in a strange way. Sentences like “From a hooker’s point of view, Kafka was a douchebag,” are naturally infused with Armstrong’s self-assured comic timing and a wink at the intellectual in-crowd. But after a point it’s a tic he can’t control, and as he waxes academic on everything from the Soviet Union to Pamela Anderson, it becomes clear that he is all too pleased with himself for being a Pimp Who Reads. It’s his badge of honor, and he waves it about, compulsively reminding us he’s above his station.
He never gives his girls the same credit, nor does he engage in any meaningful self-examination that might force him to confront his complicity in their broken lives. He also refers to them as everything from “kittens” to “slut buckets” to “daughters of joy.” Some of them are drowning while he stands idly by wearing a smarter-than-thou smirk. Ultimately, the professor-pimp’s cultural and political spectating begins to feel like an avoidance of his own conscience. If there’s a soul in there, he’s not going to let us see it.
All of his politico-historical layers never quite make a cake, but there is a kind of poetic lyricism to the scholarly posturing. Somewhere in this pimp-memoir (pimpoir?), between Hitler and defecation, between Britney Spears, the fall of the USSR, and soft-core home movies, Armstrong is saying something about the carnality of politics and the alienation that finds us retreating into our inner freaks. Maybe with a little more of Iceberg’s naked soul he could find the words to say it.