Clockers, by Richard Price

The stories of two men alternate here. The first, Strike, is a lieutenant in Rodney Little’s drug kingdom in Dempsy, NJ. Strike oversees clockers selling bottles from the benches outside the Roosevelt Homes, trying to teach them sales skills but too often disgusted with their lack of common sense. His sense of responsibility is both a strength and a weakness. He’s also hampered by a stammer and an ulcer that seems to be getting worse every day.

He has an instinct for commerce, gauging factors like the weather, the lateness of the hour, the day of the week to determine how many more bottles to get in the next re-up. It was his idea to move the sales out to the benches, reasoning that their white buyers were afraid to come into the projects. Yet he has dropped out of high school, lured by the money to be made on the street and by the reassurance of Rodney’s powerful presence, and as a result is estranged from his law-abiding mother and brother who live in the Homes.

Rodney brings teens in off the street to work in his store where he tries to train them in how to survive as part of his crew. they shouldn’t flaunt their wealth in ways that attract the notice of the police. Rodney himself drives a rust-colored Cadillac with six Garfields stuck to the windows. In fact, Rodney encourages them not to blow all their money on shoes and gold jewelry but to keep reinvesting it. Strike is one of the few who understands Rodney’s lessons and, as a result, has twenty-five thousand dollars stashed away in several safe houses. When he has enough, he plans to leave this life and buy himself a better one, but what is enough?

The second man is a Homicide investigator named Rocco who equally longs for a better life. He loves his wife and baby daughter but sees almost nothing of them, spending long hours on the job, often handing around watching tv even after his shift ends. He and his partner Mazilli work together smoothly, with a long-standing division of labor and an understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. As the story opens, Rocco is leading around an actor who’s researching a movie role as a Homicide investigator. Tired of the street, Rocco becomes obsessed with visions of Hollywood and a more glamorous life.

Rocco and Mazilli catch a murder, Darryl Adams, hard-working manager at Ahab’s, a fast-food place near Rodney’s store. Besides being found with a roll of cash in his pocket, Darryl used to work for Rodney, so Rocco suspects he might have been dealing drugs out of Ahab’s. It is this murder that drives the book. Who did it? Why?

The writing here is terrific. Price has an eye for the detail that shocks a scene into life, such as one young man caressing his stomach under his shirt as he talks—how often have I seen that in the kids lounging outside school? However, my first reaction was that the book is too long, nearly six hundred pages in my trade paperback edition. There’s a lot of repetition: Strike is doubled over with stomach pain or ordered into the car by Rodney and others so many times I couldn’t keep them all straight; policemen repeatedly break up gangs of drug dealers outside the Roosevelt and O’Brien projects with taunts and body searches. Granted, part of Price’s theme here is the Sisyphean nature of life in the hood, for both clockers and cops. Granted, too, the writing is so good that I kept at it. Still, I thought it too long.

As I mused about what scenes I would cut, I realised that I was looking at the book all wrong. Of course, it reminded me of The Wire, David Simon’s brilliant tv series set in Baltimore. Price was one of the writers for the show, so I was not surprised by the similarities of diction, mannerisms, even anecdotes. One of the things I liked best about The Wire (besides the writing, directing, acting, and so on) is that the story arc spans the entire season. True, each episode has its events and minor climaxes; some stories go across several seasons. But the main unit of the story is the season.

And that’s what Price is doing with this book. It is episodic, with small epiphanies, wins and losses, but the book as a whole is like a season of shows. There has to be a certain amount of repetition, since viewers tend to forget details from one week to the next, but given a whole season to play with, Price can allow the story to spread out and sprawl across a lot of real estate. Once I let myself adjust to his pace, I enjoyed the book a great deal.

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