Right from its very first page – when it lifts the curtain on a street corner in the fictional city of Dempsey in the USA and describes in great and and apparently well-researched detail the low-level drug dealing going on there – this novel will seem very familiar to everyone who ever watched a season of the TV show The Wire. And that is no coincidence, as not only was Richard Price one of the writers on that show, but Clockers supposedly was one of its major inspirations.
Both TV show and novel attempt to give a realistic, even naturalist view on inner city drug dealing in contemporary USA (and I assume that not much has changed there in the twenty years since Clockers was first published), and both are very successful at it. Of course one might wonder, especially in regard to the novel, whether naturalism (as well as the generally heavy-handed symbolism that tends to come along with it – Strike’s stomach ulcer is as eye-rollingly obvious a metaphor as ever Nana’s smallpox was) are really capable of getting a grip on that phenomenon or whether a realistic depiction is not doomed to reproduce nothing but its surface… but that would be rather beyond the humble scope of this blog post.
What makes Clockers fall a bit short compared to The Wire is that it confines itself to just two points of view, those of small time drug dealer Strike and almost burned-out cop Rocco, so that, in spite of its massive length, the picture the novel presents is somewhat limited in scope. On the other hand, the novel delves into much more detail than a TV show, even one running over several seasons, could, and Price paints with a really fine brush, or, to use a more appropriate metaphor, he zooms in very close, until the familiar urban landscape begins to look bizarre and takes on an almost alien quality.
This is rather detrimental to the story’s pacing, however, which never really gets off the ground and without gaining any real momentum just slogs along over 600 pages of tiny, eyesight-destroying print (I really wish there had been a Kindle edition of this available). But given its subject matter, maybe we’re not supposed to enjoy the ride Richard Price takes us on (and The Wire, too, was hard to stomach at times and quite depressing overall), and the mistake might have been mine to expect something like your standard crime novel from this book. Maybe the best way to read Clockers is not as a novel at all but as fictionalized journalism, a report not only on the state of American cities but on the state of the American soul.
The latter because Richard Price is not only very adept at describing the look and feel of his fictional Dempsey but also excels at characterisation, not just of his protagonists but also of a host of minor characters populating the streets, their lives revolving in one way or another around drugs and violence. He avoids cliché and facile explanations, shows how the enviroment shapes his characters’ minds and behaviour but never simply reduces them to a mere product of their surroundings. The two narrative viewpoints are used quite deftly to get different perspectives on the same characters, and while the main protaginists carry sometimes rather heavily on all the symbolism Price heaps on them, they never are overwhelmed by it. Clockers is very much not the fast-moving crime novel I was expecting when I started it, but in spite of some lingering reservations, I cannot say that I am disappointed with the sprawling description of inner city life that I got instead.