All of my GenCon wrap-up pieces for Paste are now up, including the top ten new games I saw, the summary of every other interesting title, and an essay on the experience of attending for the first time.
Richard Price is back in the news these days with the critical acclaim for the HBO limited series The Night Of, an adaptation of a British series, with Price as lead writer on the U.S. version. (I’m only through episode three, but it’s excellent.) Price isn’t new to HBO, writing five episodes of The Wire, and gritty urban stories are his milieu in literature as well, with his 2008 novel Lush Life one of the best novels of the century so far. I just tore through his 1992 novel Clockers, later adapted by Spike Lee into a film that also featured The Night Of‘s John Turturro, an unsparing, compelling portrait of both sides of the pointless battle in the war on drugs.
Set in Price’s fictional Dempsey, New Jersey, Clockers focuses on two primary characters, the low-level drug dealer Ronald Dunham, known as “Strike,” and the homicide detective Rocco Klein, who end up on a collision course when another dealer who works for the same person as Strike is shot and killed execution-style, and Strike’s clean-cut brother Victor surprises everyone by confessing to the crime. Klein doesn’t buy the confession, and Strike is certain Victor is covering for him (even though Strike was assigned to make the kill, he wasn’t able to follow through), so each is, in his own way, trying to get Victor off the hook without knowing who actually committed the murder.
Price’s gift in his work is his ability to create entire universes populated with a variety of realistic, distinct characters from the kids known as “clockers” working the street for Strike and his boss to the mixture of homicide and drug cops, some of whom are incredibly bigoted, to the handful of extras whose lives intersect with Strike’s and Rocco’s. There’s substantial balance in all of his portraits, avoiding the cliched cops-good-clockers-bad mentality without losing sight of the murder that set the entire story in motion, so that the reader feels empathy for the “bad” guys and plenty of antipathy for some of the “good” ones. While Klein and his partner are flawed, they’re relatively well-behaved compared to the street cops responsible for policing the drug trade at the housing project where Strike works, and Price gives us racist cops, cops on the take, drunk cops, and okay maybe the cops don’t come off too well in Clockers, perhaps worse in a lot of ways than the majority of the clockers, most of whom are kids, come off.
If there’s a message in the novel at all, and I could see Price arguing there isn’t one, it’s that the drug trade exists because of the lack of other opportunities for poor urban youth. There’s a constant dialogue among the clockers, including Strike, his boss Rodney, Strike’s brother Victor, Strike’s intended protege Tyrone, Tyrone’s surrogate dad Andre the Giant, and so on, about the limited alternatives to dealing. School is barely mentioned, and only with disdain. Young black men who work regular jobs, like Victor, are respected, but Strike et al see the brighter financial outlook from dealing and decline to take the difficult, legal route. Andre, a cop who tries to mentor some of the at-risk kids in the projects, especially Tyrone, is respected and feared, and is known to use violence to make his will known because that’s the language that works. He might be the closest thing Clockers has to a “good guy,” except that he’ll use extrajudicial means to protect the kids he’s trying to help, and the other kids are terrified of him, so if that’s your good guy … well, then you get the gist.
Price doesn’t moralize much anywhere in the book, though; this is dispassionate, plot-driven writing, and even an easy target like the wastefulness of the War on Drugs doesn’t get a whiff. (The book was published in 1992, when drug decriminalization was only far-left hippie talk.) The only time he goes astray is in the scenes of Klein’s home life; he’s an older first-time father, struggling to balance the amorphous time demands of his job with the desire to be a father and a wife who may or may not understand how his job works (he thinks she doesn’t, but we don’t really get her side of this). It’s thinly drawn, especially the characterization of the wife, but also because we don’t see enough of his family relationships to get more out of it than that he loves his daughter and is thinking about the future after his career as a detective. That’s the difference between this novel and the superior Lush Life, by which point Price had honed his plot development skills so that the scenes off the streets were every bit as compelling as the scenes on them.
Next up: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in her Neapolitan Novels tetralogy.