06 November 2006

Clockers, by Richard Price

November 06 2006 (05:22:00)

Houghton Mifflin 1992 599 pages.

On the back cover of this book there's an endorsement by Scott Turow. Turow is the author of The Laws of our Fathers, among others. Of Clockers, he says "...its complete knowledge of life in our most reviled places, [is] riveting..." I point this out because Clockers picks up where Laws left off in its depiction of the drug-dealing underworld in the "projects" of a big city. Turow's novels are set in a fictional city said to be Chicago, Price's in another, Dempsy, New Jersey. Dempsy is close enough to New York City to be any of the minor urban areas that make up that megalopolis.

Two major characters from Clockers are Rocco, the police detective, and Strike, the budding career criminal. The novel has a lot to do with the relationship between the police and the broken, sick, African-American community in Dempsy, and the relationship between Rocco and Strike is in part a metaphor for this. In some ways it could be seen as the "good guys" hunting the "bad guys," but there's an element of interdependency here -- and I couldn't help thinking of the worn-out observation about prison guards and prisoners, how little difference there is between their lives.

Strike is an up-and-coming drug dealer working directly under a gangster named Rodney. Rodney is a type of godfather in this world of nearly universal drug addiction, poverty, and general deprivation. These people do not live like animals, animals do much better. Rodney has several children by various partners, and is a father figure to Strike and other members of his gang/enterprise -- but he's a cold, calculating, homicidal sociopath. He manipulates Strike into a situation where Strike must kill (or cause to be killed) a rival in order to advance his own position in the gang.

The situation becomes complicated when Strike's brother gets involved. Darryl, Strike's rival, is murdered in a parking lot, and Strike's brother confesses to the crime. It seems completely incongruous and even impossible, but suddenly Victor -- Strike's older and relatively straight-arrow brother, quiet, hard-working family man -- is not only involved in the sordid dealings of Strike and Rodney, but arrested for committing the murder that furthers Strikes ambitions.

Detective Rocco is another family man, married and a father somewhat late in life. He's an alarmingly heavy drinker who seems to be inoculating himself with booze against the disease that is all around him. Convinced that Strike is truly guilty of the murder (he is not, as far as we can tell) he pressures him with his brother's fate if his confession is accepted. While this does bother Strike a bit, the actual twisted mess that ensues on both sides is complicated enough to keep us reading to see what will happen next.

Price has certainly created a believable world, or underworld, here in Dempsy, NJ. I understand that this novel has sequels, and I may have to pick them up soon. I bought this book for about a dollar at Book World in Kent, WA, and didn't have high expectations, but I found myself quickly immersed in what I consider to be a very good work of fiction and an excellent commentary on our society. The American Dream has become something of a nightmare for the generations of impoverished people that have inhabited our cities in recent centuries.

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