It’s been two decades since Richard Price’s Clockers first hit bookshelves (kids, those are the things grown-ups had before tablets to hold their bound volumes of printed paper product). A lot has happened in those 22 years: America got its first black president, the Red Sox broke their 86-year curse, Justin Bieber was born. And yet, to read Clockers in 2014 doesn’t feel much like an exercise in time travel, or historical fiction. For all the emphasis the United States has put on in its wars on Drugs and Poverty, respectively, Clockers might as well have been written last year
Set in a fictional New Jersey town, Clockers follows the ins and outs of a group of housing projects—home to a complex network of drug dealers—as well as the cops and detectives whose business it is to prevent the success of said drug trade. The novel is primarily concerned with Strike, an up-and-coming pusher struggling to balance his financial ambition against his disillusionment with hustling; and Rocco, a homicide detective charged with investigating a murder that may be connected to Strike’s crew. Split between the perspectives of its two main characters, Clockers is immediately reminiscent of the McNulty/Avon dynamic in the first season of The Wire. Which makes sense: author Richard Price was a writer on the show.
Now generally, if you ask people what they think about The Wire, the initial superlatives (“dude, it is like, SO. GOOD.”) eventually give way to more nuanced praise, often for the dialogue, and the precision with which show creator David Simon renders the parlance of Baltimore cops and dealers. The dialogue made the show authentic, even if it sometimes required me to rewind a scene seven times (for reals, I’m from Maryland and I could barely understand them). Clockers has all the same benefits of authenticity, but without the need to backtrack your DVR. Moreover, being directly privy to Strike and Rocco’s thoughts is a valuable bonus. There’s a scene about halfway in where Strike joins Rodney Little (his boss) and a gang of impressionable future hustlers for a steak dinner, during which Rodney regales his young admirers with his characteristic street wisdom. Strike’s internal monologue during the meal—overt disdain for the youngsters’ money-hungry instant-reward approach to life, and for Rodney’s ham-handed attempts to bestow street smarts—in many ways explains his entire character.
And of course, Clockers has real insight to impart. The novel explores a lifestyle ingrained with limitations, and ponders the irony of expecting stand-up citizenry from people so fundamentally unlikely to be given a chance to amount to something. Clockers is also about the unique camaraderie formed between cops and criminals, and the myriad ways in which they, the people closest to the inner workings of crime and the criminal justice system, question said system and the inequities it allows. As a side commentary, there’s also a visceral element to facing how young some of these pushers are—Strike, our protagonist in chief, something of a right-hand man in the dope world, is all of 19 years old. And he’s considered a veteran.
Ironically, it took me a few episodes to really get into The Wire, probably because my usual metric for “good” television is whatever requires the fewest brain cells. The Wire is an investment—logistically, intellectually and emotionally—and one does not embark upon its five revered (well, mostly revered) seasons lightly. One buckles down with one’s TV volume turned up, remote at the ready and Wikipedia page on hand; and one parses through those heavy Baltimore accents in pursuit of the story underneath, which is a compelling and morally provocative tale of fate and circumstance in the War on Drugs. Likewise, Clockers is a dense novel—and not always a riveting one—but it’s still easily one of the best books of its kind, a sort of fictionalized journalism meant to shed light on people like Strike and Rocco and Avon and McNulty, not simply because they’re memorable characters, but because they’re representations of bigger issues, of inefficiencies endemic to the American way of dealing with poor people, addicts and criminals. Truth be told, the only thing disappointing about Clockers is how little things have changed.
AUTHOR: Richard Price
PAGES: 593 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Lush Life, The Wire
SORTA LIKE: The Wire meets Random Family
FIRST LINE: “Strike spotted her: baby fat, baby face, Shanelle or Shanette, fourteen years old maybe, standing there with that queasy smile, trying to work up the nerve.”