It is evident from the very first pages of Ray Shell’s Iced, that the book’s story is unlike any other you’ve ever heard or read. The novel follows Cornelius Washington Jr., a once-promising man from an upper-middle-class Black family, who now operates in a ‘90s drug-riddled New York City. Following tragedy after tragedy, mistake after mistake, Cornelius is faced with trauma, grief, and guilt too insurmountable to manage on his own. As a result, Cornelius develops a slew of vices—most dangerously, a severe addiction to crack cocaine.
Though AIDS predates the ‘80s and cannot be traced exactly to its origin in the United States, 1981 was generally considered the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Amidst the rising death tolls and vitriolic homophobia associated with the growing AIDS crisis, however, was the increasingly rapid increase in the use of crack cocaine, especially within Black and Brown communities. Thus, the ‘80s and ‘90s in America were characterized by death, sickness, political oppression, racialized discrimination, homophobia, and a complete dissolution of empathy.
Iced is a novel about intense regret and acceptance, forgiveness and remembrance. Published originally during the height of the crack epidemic in 1993, Iced is a fictional diary of one man’s life and descent into addiction. It has become a revolutionary work in the contemporary literary scene, highlighting the consequences of white-centered, short-sighted politics regarding underserved communities. While critical, it is not solely a book on political and social criticism. Rather, it is a book on hypotheticals: on the lengths to which people can be pushed, and how addiction and grief can eat away at our minds, morals, and lives.
Written as a first-person diary, Iced does not follow any typical literary formats. In addition to a lack of traditional “chapters” in exchange for date and time accounts like a diary, the novel is written as a stream of consciousness, complete with sentences that begin on one line and end on the next, capitalized phrases, open-ended thoughts, and more. While some writers may not appreciate the messy, very realistic structure, it reads almost as free-verse, spoken word poetry, filled to the brim with lustrous and rich descriptions. A particularly moving account comes on page 272 when Cornelius—in the thick of his addiction—is forced to visit his mother, whom he has not seen in 5 years. Cornelius states, “A comforting mix of sweated pleasure, perpetual pain, panicked, worrisome futures coalesced with chicken fat, baked ham, and fish on Friday.” The movement of Iced is free-flowing, unexpected, and unique with every turn of the page—another example of Shell’s finesse.
It would be remiss to ignore Shell’s religious motifs as well. Cornelius is always seeking a light—something to pull him from his despair and save him. Thus, every addiction he has, whether it’s to drugs, alcohol, or people, is his “salvation” or “Eden.” Overwhelmed by expectations and the fact that he has failed to meet those which he was set up for, he sees himself as a fallen angel, a failed golden boy. It is not until the last few pages of the novel that Cornelius realizes that his salvation is not crack or sex, but is the acceptance of his mistakes and the forgiveness that only he can provide for himself.
While Shell’s Iced is linguistically gorgeous, the novel is overarchingly harrowing. To dichotomize his own stunning prose, Shell writes Cornelius as a character who is—though extremely intelligent and well-spoken—vulgar, rude, offensive, and extremely flawed. Having done some quite horrible and violent things, in no way, shape, or form is Cornelius a “good” character. However, he is not a deplorable person at his core. Instead, he is a victim of a system and a government that profits off of drug addiction, that funnels billions of dollars into a vicious military complex but leaves its own citizens without proper resources, mental-health assistance, and basic human rights. A system that perpetuates in-community violence and leaves children unsafe in schools, on playgrounds, and in their homes. A system that creates policies to better the lives of white billionaires who scoff at every person experiencing homelessness or suffering from addiction without acknowledging the fact that they play a pivotal role in perpetuating this oppressive system. As Cornelius states:
“The real power brokers are White Government boys who allow drugs to be imported into the country. The Black dealers are only modern-day slave-overseers working for the White slave masters. The Black ghetto has replaced the southern plantation and we, the inhabitants of the ghetto, are now chained to drugs, welfare, hopelessness, to crime. That environment and the products of that environment are created and manipulated by the White boys in power.”
Ray Shell’s stellar work Iced is not a piece that can be adequately summarized in less than 1,000 words, nor is it a piece that someone like me, a middle-class white female can comprehend fully. The novel is horrifying, brutal, and intensely uncomfortable, but it’s important to investigate why we feel this way when this is the reality of millions. Iced reiterates that to heal, we must recognize traumatizing pasts and our role in a system so broken, and only then can we attempt to reconcile.
By Ray Shell
Published October 10, 2023
Angie Raney is a recent graduate of DePaul University where she studied creative writing, anthropology, and Spanish. Her poetry and creative nonfiction has been published in publications such as Crook and Folly, Silver Birch Press, Fleas on the Dog and more. Currently, she work as the Fundraising and Events Assistant for StoryStudio Chicago.