There is no shortage of inventive sadism in the pages of Candy Licker, the novel currently poised at the top of the Essence best-seller list. In the first chapter, for example, our protagonist—a 19-year-old singer named Candy Raye Montana—is molested with the business end of a .44 Magnum. Her tormentor, a Svengali-like record producer, later brands his nickname onto her shoulder blades, then beats her senseless when she dares to snicker at his 2-inch manhood—the result, we're told, of a botched circumcision. Luckily, Candy's life isn't always so grim. As the book's title suggests, she is a devoted fan of cunnilingus, and her first-person accounts of being pleasured rival the masterpieces of Penthouse Forum.
Candy Licker's blend of vicious thuggery and raw sex is probably too harrowing for readers whose idea of steamy is Lady Chatterly's Lover. But it's a hit among aficionados of street lit, a pulp genre that chronicles the byzantine, Cristal-fueled world of pimps, hustlers, and the licentious women who love them.
Street lit derives its name not only from the crime within its pages, but from its authors' early distribution methods. The genre's two pioneers in the late 1960s and early 1970s were Iceberg Slim (aka Robert Beck, aka Robert Lee Maupin), a reformed pimp, and Donald Goines (aka Al C. Clark), an off-and-on heroin addict. Mainstream bookstores were loath to stock their novels, which were full of hard-core tales of the Vietnam-era thug life, complete with eviscerated hookers and copious drug use. Slim and Goines instead sold many of their earliest works, paperbacks published by Los Angeles-based Holloway House, through nontraditional channels: black-owned drugstores, mail-order catalogs, and street vendors.
The 1970s street-lit craze faded with the 1974 murder of Goines, and with Beck's retirement three years later. (Beck claimed that he simply had nothing left to say.) But a resurgence started in the early 1990s, as rappers mined the likes of Slim's Trick Baby and Goines' Kenyatta's Last Hit for bleak images to enrich their lyrics. Inspired, young authors began to release new works, especially in the second half of the decade as digital print technology drastically reduced the cost of self-publishing; other writers hooked up with small-time publishers that cropped up to capitalize on the street-lit trend, such as Triple Crown Publications. With even less industry clout than Goines and Beck, these writers were more dependent on street vendors, or on hawking books out of the trunks of their cars. Advertising consisted mostly of handing out bookmarks to passerby.
Then the industry had its own version of a Sister Souljah moment. In 1999 Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, published Souljah's relentlessly gritty coming-of-age story, The Coldest Winter Ever. The book was a fixture on the Essence best-seller list for several months and proved to the major publishing houses that street-lit readers were worth courting. Among these publishers was One World, a "multicultural imprint" of Random House's Ballantine Books division. Founded in 1992, primarily to handle backlist titles such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, One World later became intrigued by the sales potential of street lit; in 2004 it won the bidding war over Nikki Turner, a street-lit star who rose to prominence while at Triple Crown.
All of which explains why Candy Licker's author, a woman who goes simply by Noire, never had to bother with setting up a sidewalk card table. Instead, her agent submitted the manuscript for G-Spot, her 2005 debut, directly to One World. The editor who reviewed G-Spot, Melody Guy, was immediately struck by the professionalism of the prose, as well as the originality of the concept—graphic crime noir peppered with graphic accounts of teeth-chattering orgasms.
One World provided both G-Spot and Candy Licker with professional copy-editing—the street-lit indies are notoriously lax when it comes to excising punctuation errors—and it also had the resources necessary to promote Noire's books in the right markets. The imprint paid for subway ads in several cities with large African-American populations. The tagline? "The Word on the Streets Is Noire." The company also reached out to black bookstores to make sure Candy Licker was stocked on the front tables. And One World arranged for Candy Licker to bear a cover blurb from Turner, whose endorsement is coveted by street-lit authors; Turner's reputation for ordaining best sellers is so great, in fact, that One World recently created a "Nikki Turner Presents … " sub-imprint.
Bookstore browsers who crack open Candy Licker on Turner's recommendation will find an oddly absorbing tale about ambition, dependency, and sexual decadence. Noire has a real talent for tight pacing and evocative language: The act of stabbing a heroin-filled syringe in one's arm, for example, is described as "skin-popping horse," while a crooked lawyer "washed his boss's money like he was an old lady with a box of Tide and a gallon of bleach." At its finest, Noire's prose sounds like something that might spill from the pen of James Ellroy, had he grown up listening to Big L. Noire also has a remarkable knack for sexual invention; her description of a fantasy involving a jalapeño pepper and a strong-tongued suitor, for example, is nothing if not attention-grabbing.
Avoiding real-world attention, however, seems to be an obsession of Noire's. She doesn't tour or make public appearances. In an e-mail interview, she told me that she "appreciates the public reading what I write, but that doesn't give them the right to my life story"; she said that she usually writes while traveling for her day job, which she refused to identify. The secrecy seemed excessive and perplexing, and after a bit of poking around, I concluded that "Noire" is most likely a pseudonym for Tracy Price-Thompson, the author of such sexually charged Essence best sellers as Chocolate Sangria and Black Coffee, who has been publishing novels since 2002. (Click
Of course, pulp writers often use multiple pseudonyms, particularly when they want to develop different brands for different genres. It's the calculation here that's interesting: Hip-hop, and by extension street lit, has always been obsessed with authenticity. It's possible that either One World or Price-Thompson thought Candy Raye Montana's saga would seem less credible if audiences knew it had been written by a Hawaii-based mom. Given the culture's abhorrence of poseurs, that fear might be justified. But then again, it might not: The true identity of Candy Licker's author will likely be far from most readers' minds while they're gasping at the debauchery of a videotaped gangbang.