Richard Price’s Clockers and the Road to The Wire
The other week, a friend of mine testified to the greatness of the HBO miniseries The Wire by saying that while watching one of the seasons she waited for two characters to meet, and when they finally did, it was just so good. What she meant was that if one were a faithful viewer of the show, tuning into every episode, one earned a massive payoff. In an increasingly mediated and meta world, where conglomerate news aggregators and blatantly scripted “reality” TV programs are constantly yanking us away from creations whose source material is the imagination, the idea that the viewer (or reader) receives a “reward” for paying attention has become, almost exclusively, the reason that we, as a country and a culture, continue to consume made-up stories.
The reason for this is rather simple. Real life, with its tedious daily tasks and its long stretches of boredom, and in comparison to the celebrity-emphasized world available on call, rarely climaxes in such dramatic and satisfying one-on-one encounters; if it does, it’s usually a sign of an imploding relationship, something you hoped would never happen the first time you met your friend or spouse or coworker. Moreover, real life is fluid and does not contain convenient starting and ending points. Sitting around and waiting for relationships to coalesce into a punctuation point is to engage in the fantasy that real life would be more fulfilling if it were structured more like fiction.
Fiction, however, is specifically engineered to lead to such moments. When fiction “works”—when the dialogue supplies background information and pushes one scene to the next; when the characters are drawn and subsequently revealed to be, through their unpredictable (or predictable) actions, authentic to themselves; when the stakes are high for these characters; when the plot twists and turns just enough, but not too much, to convince us that that’s truly “how it happened”—we want to indulge in its almost luscious perversion of life: that something so real-seeming is actually a meticulously pre-thought-out fantasy where the reason for paying attention can literally be boiled down to one thing: a single meeting between two people that is exponentially magnified because of how well we seem to know them.
No book I have recently read has embodied this more than Clockers, Richard Price’s 1992 urban crime drama about the drug-ridden underclass of Dempsey, New Jersey (a fictional stand-in for Jersey City), and the detectives who police it. Unsurprisingly, the novel makes for an interesting study in form. It begins in the eyes of a nineteen-year-old black drug dealer named Ronald “Strike” Dunham. Strike’s placement on the local drug-dealing totem pole is balanced by the kids from his projects (they’re called “clockers”) that he’s hired to sell little bottles of cocaine, and by Rodney Little, an older drug lieutenant who supplies Strike. Rodney is one of the major characters in the novel, but because the close third-person narrative focuses only on Strike, everything involving Rodney, from learning about his ex-con exploits to seeing him feed his toddler candy, is mediated through Strike. Strike’s point-of-view represents one half of our experience of this story: we see him identify a fourteen-year-old baby fat girl as “two months from now . . . stinky, just another pipehead,” fend off the law enforcement gang (the “knockos”) that polices his project housing while trying to control his stutter, drive to projects in the Bronx to visit his sort of girlfriend, contemplate his options for leaving the drug business, and incessantly drink vanilla Yoo-Hoo to calm his gut.
The other half is mediated by the same close third-person voice, only this time it’s informing us of the exploits of Rocco Klein, a white detective who’s spending these hot summer days driving around Dempsey County with his partner Mazilli, the “usual expression of sly expectation” on his face, his mind not infrequently wandering to the forty-one murders in the year thus far (“not exactly a tidal wave of blood”) and how trying solve them hasn’t brought him the same excitement as in the past. In this sense, Rocco plays the stereotypically world-weary cop, but the quirks of his personality are revealed, early on, in the boastful but insecure way he interacts with Sean Touhey, a movie star shadowing the detectives for research for a prospective role, and the forced-feeling phone calls and at-home moments he has with his young wife Patty and little daughter Erin.
So, Strike gets the first chapter, Rocco the second (these are longer chapters, often 20-30 pages, each containing a number of set pieces), and as the novel plays out in this back-and-forth nature, the structure builds natural tension: when, and under what circumstances, will Strike and Rocco meet?
The answer, which gives away nothing, is that the plot centers on the murder of Rodney’s second-in-command drug runner, Darryl Adams, at the crusty local restaurant Ahab’s, where Darryl worked and dealt. Out of nowhere, Strike’s brother Victor, older by a year, confesses to the murder, saying he shot Darryl in self-defense. Rocco, a skilled investigator, questions him and quickly discerns that something is amiss: not only do Victor’s retelling and the facts of the crime render the self-defense confession specious, but Victor, a hard-working family man with a negligible criminal history, has no discernible motive. As Rocco further investigates, talking to people who vouch for Victor’s integrity, he learns that Victor’s brother Strike is a local drug dealer and probably had motivation to kill Darryl. Thus Rocco, who has become emotionally invested in Victor’s innocence, takes it upon himself to hunt down Strike and force him to confess. But what Rocco doesn’t know is that Strike didn’t do it and has no idea who did.
The reader knows this, but no one—not Rocco, Strike, or us—has any idea who the killer is. Everyone just knows that someone knows. Framed this way, we have a classic “whodunit” story. But what keeps it from being pulpy and forgettable in the mold of the airport thriller is craft. Price goes to severe lengths to create intelligent and complex characters who speak in an urban patois as sui generis as any and to cook up a dynamic storyline where twists and turns are packaged in information and backstory as much as they are in present action. And that he committed himself to this task is what has allowed him to paint a portrait of the American drug underclass so grisly, haunting, and uncompromising that it borders on mythology. It is the type of fiction that would serve as a blueprint for The Wire, a show to which Price, an accomplished screenwriter who has earned an Academy Award nomination for the 1986 Martin Scorsese film The Color of Money, would eventually lend his writing skills.
My aforementioned insinuation that this type of blisteringly real fiction is derived out of imagination and not reality is only true in a general sense. Just as David Simon used his observations during his career as a Baltimore crime reporter as source material for The Wire, to research Clockers Richard Price rode around in police cars and hung around drug dealers. The volume of information he accumulated was so large that he told The Paris Review he
had a stack of notebooks two feet high of overheard things, sights, descriptions, sounds. Six months after Houghton Miflin [sic] bought the book, I was still coming in with anecdotes, snatches of conversations, war stories. The novel was taking shape . . . but I still hadn’t written a word. . . . My editor took me to lunch and he hit me with this hideous question: Well, this is all good and well. . . . Let me just ask you . . . What’s the first sentence?
Such authorial insight serves as a luxury that can help us see how and why the novel reached its final, publishable form. When Price finished writing, what he had produced was, in his words, an “endless, interminable draft, well over one thousand pages.” Over the ensuing eighteen months, he chiseled at the text, focusing, among other things, on “consistency of tone, a narrowed point of view.” Much of this is textually evident. With Price at the mercy of the story, setting scenes and describing thought and action with staggeringly objective clarity and economy, Clockers contains very few errors of laziness, the type of moments where an author gets carried away with bloated prose incongruous with the story’s environment. (One tic that a reader may or may not find annoying is Price’s constant reliance on showing a character’s thoughts or actions by starting a clause with the present participle: “[Rocco] . . . let it go, thinking, The hell with it.”) By staying true to the timing and contextual logic of human thought and interaction, Price has, over his novel’s 600 pages, ample opportunity to let perhaps his greatest skill—dialogue—flourish.
A story chockfull of conversations representative of the author’s “ear for dialogue” is successful in using such reported speech to authenticate a world only if said dialogue literally becomes the story. This is the case here, where the reader quickly realizes that the speech patterns of Rocco (and his primarily white law enforcement colleagues), Strike and Rodney (and their primarily black drug-dealing colleagues), and the Asian and Latino and African-American bit characters are not tawdry gimmicks but an unrelenting indicator of the reality of melting pot urban American life. Different people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds talk differently and so must be portrayed differently. It’s a truism apropos of nothing—at no point does Price editorialize, or overdo, the dialects.
Here, for instance, is Rodney, at home, with Strike:
“Lookit.” Rodney extended an American Express gift catalogue to Strike. “What you think of that?”
Strike looked at the picture of a male model wearing a three-hundred-dollar pair of suede pants.
“The way you eat sometimes? Shit, I’d get me suh-some oilcloth pants.”
And here’s Rocco, telling some police officers a story:
About six years ago? . . . Me and Frank Delgado, we’d hit a dry spell? You know, it’s cold, no one’s killing anybody, we’re park out back here and wait for them to throw shit out the windows. You know, you smash up a toilet on twelfth floor, who the fuck wants to lug the pipes down all those stairs, right? Shit would come down, ka-boom, we’d throw it in the trunk and take it over to the yard ourself. Sometimes there’d be six other cops out there waiting for the same thing. We’d race for that shit, bend down at the same time, band heads. . . . Paid for a few beers . . . Guys still doing that?
The book must contain at least one thousand exchanges like this. The main point here is that Price spares no person this treatment. A few times, when he uses extended speeches in place of indirect discourse, or when two people familiar with each other’s pathos are conversing, the reader must exercise patience and detection to follow what information is being exchanged and how/why it is being revealed. Over time, though, the result is that life-like feeling one gets when witnessing fictional conversations as they “really” took place: statements are relayed as questions, details are referenced obliquely or in street code, conversations zigzag according to the circuitry of a character’s mind, not of the author’s hand. How Price mitigates any potential frustration on the part of the reader is he provides enough clues for us to figure everything out, ensuring that we are never confused, that we always keep reading, but that we never read fast.
Such treatment ought to be the preferred method when applied to gritty hyper social realism; otherwise, the story can easily wither into the realm of parody and caricature. Neither of these has a place in Clockers, certainly not in terms of violence, which is deployed sparingly and carefully (and is never cheapened with gore). Instead, violence lurks—on the benches outside of Strike’s Roosevelt Projects, in the furious psyche of ex-cons like Rodney—thereby intensifying its role. If everyone in this world seems one harmless step from death, but still the overwhelming majority of people are not dealing and dying, sheer existence becomes a horror. Stratified across the gamut of Dempsey potential, from characters like Errol Barnes, Rodney’s low-rent, “stone killer” hit man, to Tyrone, a quizzical and reticent kid Strike befriends, the value of a life disappears altogether.
Richard Price could have used his extensive research to file a “dispatch from the asphalt combat zone of the American underclass,” the classification under which Paris Review interviewer James Linville notes that Clockers was widely recognized. But that he channeled the underclass’s hopes and dreams and destitutions through the intertwining fates of a kid dealer and a grizzled detective rightly allows him to be most proud of, in Linville’s words, his novel’s “artfulness.” It is a story where the staple of all thrillers—the final twist—does not just reveal the killer but leverages an entire social class against its will to endure.