In the summer of 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton bashed New York community activist Sister Souljah for her statement "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" Clinton was trying to prove to white Democrats that he wasn't beholden to the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his crew (with whom Souljah was affiliated). Souljah, who threw it right back at him, saying she'd be damned if she was going to be his Willie Horton, went on to recording and publishing contracts.
Her debut novel, "The Coldest Winter Ever," is the streetwise, life-of-crime saga of Winter Santiaga, the teenage daughter of a Brooklyn drug kingpin and a girl much like those Souljah says she meets all the time in her work with the African Youth Survival Camp (for homeless children) and Daddy's House Social Programs (funded by Sean "Puffy" Combs). Winter is precocious, babacious and as tough as a hollow-point bullet. She walks through the story with one hand on her hip, tossing off withering observations on men and money, and her voice is the book's greatest strength.
The first part plays like a protracted rap video: Everything is fly and phat, Winter's father spares his wife and daughters no luxury, and nothing is generic. Versace, Courvoisier, Chanel, Mokt -- there are enough brand names to make Bret Easton Ellis proud. (Even her twin sisters are named Mercedes and Lexus.) But then the whip comes down in the form of young and hungry competitors and RICO-empowered federal agents. Winter's father goes to jail, and her survival becomes the story. Then Sister Souljah herself turns up.
Winter's reaction the first time she hears Souljah speak is typical: "How is this bitch supposed to help the community when she don't know how to rock her shit? I checked her arm, no Rolex, not even a Timex, nothing. No weight on her neck, nothing. Her hairdo was phat but that don't mean nothing when you don't know how to accessorize." Before long, though, she's seeking refuge in the activist's house, where she comments with typical disdain on her host's art ("African titties everywhere and wooden mask carvings") and appearance ("She was a typical uptown girl: big ass, wide hips and, nope, not a flat belly"). But she remains deaf to the Sister's message of uplift. What Souljah does have going for her is men, and the injustice of it all is too much for Winter. Here some back-to-Africa, celibate, fat (not phat) sister act is getting all the action while Winter needs to steal to get by.
I'm relieved to report that Souljah does not perform any superhuman feats of rescue, and Winter's tale has moments of page-turning suspense. But most of the characters are one dimensional, and the occasional bits of speechifying, while impassioned, complement this crime novel about as well as spinach goes with cherry pie. What aberration of ego caused Sister Souljah to place herself in the center of her own novel? When her character confronts a hospital ward of female AIDS patients, she delivers a message about the importance of women in community. The scene is tender and more real than 90 percent of the book, but it's Winter -- a deadpan narrator in the Huck Finn mode -- who looks at the death-bed audience and has the last word: "They were in need of hygiene and a fashion rescue mission." As cruel as that line is, it's funny. And even in the best-intentioned work, wit plays better than wisdom.