If Richard Price had retired in 1992 he would have already been leaving behind an impressive body of work: Four critically acclaimed novels, an Oscar nomination for his screenwriting, a #1 box office hit, even a credit on a Michael Jackson music video. He could’ve laid down his pen and settled into a professorship somewhere, or even coasted on his reputation while churning out middling work, and no one would’ve been able to say he hadn’t had a hell of a run.
Instead, he released Clockers, the novel that would come to be regarded as arguably the best work of his career. This is going to be a long post (I think I kept it at least slightly shorter than Clockers itself), but that’s because there’s a lot to unpack here; out of all of Richard Price’s works, this one casts the longest shadow.
At the time of Clockers‘ publication, it was a big deal that Price was putting out a novel at all. It had been nine years since the release of his last book, The Breaks, which had taken a frustrating five years to write and which had left him feeling like his own life, formerly the main inspiration for his semi-autobiographical stories, had been so thoroughly plundered that it had no more material left to offer. Creatively drained, he turned to screenwriting, a craft which allowed him to build on others’ stories rather than scrape the bottom of the barrel for more of his own.
And in the end, that focus on other people’s experiences–experiences which were somewhat alien from his own and yet, in a distant, echoing way, familiar–was what drew him back to prose.
Price’s debut novel, The Wanderers, had chronicled the 1960s Bronx housing project culture he grew up in as a child. It was a dark book, brimming over with gruesome imagery of gang violence, and yet it seemed almost quaint compared to what its setting would look like decades later after the crack epidemic had arrived. (In fact, the 1979 film adaptation of The Wanderers includes an ironic scene in which the titular greasers are shocked when a member of a rival gang pulls out a gun. The message was clear: New York has no idea what it’s in for.) In the ’80s, Price returned to the projects to do research on police work for his Sea of Love screenplay, and he found that the environment had been frighteningly transformed:
…[E]ven though I’d spent the first eighteen years of my life in buildings like these, I felt like I had landed on a distant planet. They had turned into such tiger pits. The only things that looked familiar to me were the bricks… And I was seized by the desire to understand what happened to the projects. I felt compelled to return to the world I came from to find out what happened.
At the same time, Price was also teaching in a Bronx rehab center. Having struggled with his own addiction to “typical middle-class sniffing cocaine,” he was horrified at the nightmare crack had become for his students. And, of course, his Sea of Love research had left him enamored with the world of police and their “backstage pass to the greatest show on earth,” as he often puts it. Although he didn’t find screenwriting as creatively satisfying as fiction, his experiences with it had taught him that “talent travels”–that he could write about milieus he wasn’t intimately familiar with first-hand. And that was what he would do with his comeback novel: Render a portrait of the people fighting both sides of the War on Drugs.
In another first for his literary career, he’d be setting his story outside of New York. He noted in the introductory interview of a 1993 screenplay collection that “What is consistent in my work… is that the fourth character is always New York City,” but Clockers’ subject matter necessitated a change of location for practical research purposes: “[B]y the time I’d gotten permission to hang out with the police in New York,” he says, “I would’ve been halfway through the novel.” Instead, he went to Jersey City to hang out with cops and dealers there for what would become a legendarily extensive, years-long research session. Then, in an attempt to universalize the material (and, presumably, avoid the restrictions and obligations that come with writing about a real place), he invented the fictional facsimile of Dempsy, New Jersey, which would end up being the setting not just of Clockers but also of Price’s next two novels afterward.
Price sold the novel before a full draft had ever been completed by pitching his story aloud to various publishers, and one of his principal selling points was that the most important thing Hollywood had taught him (besides the art of the pitch itself) was how to craft a tight, fast-moving plot. “And then,” he says, “I turned in a 1,400-page first draft with no ending because I was so happy to be back in novels and not have to write any of the Hollywood bullshit.”
II. THE BOOK ITSELF
The 600-page book which eventually emerged from that first draft is still, by most standards, kind of shaggy. But it remains one of Price’s most structurally efficient novels (“[N]one of my books historically has been tightly plotted,” he admits), partly thanks to its whodunit central premise: Dempsy drug dealer Darryl Adams is murdered early on, and the rest of the book revolves around the protagonists’ attempts to figure out who killed him.
Price’s writing alone is good enough to turn the meandering ramble of The Breaks into a page-turner, whatever his own regrets about that book might be. So when you combine his gripping prose with the inherently addictive format of a murder mystery, it’s no wonder that Clockers is so unstoppably absorbing.
Of course, Price only follows the murder mystery playbook up to a point. The final reveal of the truth is affecting but not shocking; Price withholds it until the end but doesn’t try to keep it concealed with misdirection. The conclusion is still satisfying, though, because by that point the reader is less concerned with the mystery than with the fates of the book’s two main characters, between whom the novel alternates on a chapter-by-chapter basis. One is Ronald “Strike” Dunham, a 19-year-old crack dealer who may have unwittingly instigated the killing; the other is Rocco Klein, a 43-year-old homicide detective who begins to suspect (mistakenly, as the reader knows) that Strike is the one who pulled the trigger.
The protagonists of Price’s previous books (with the exception of the ensemble piece The Wanderers) all fit a fairly specific mold, one based loosely on Price himself: They were young, neurotic guys from the Bronx who were anxious about whether or not they’d transcend their working-class origins, and who dealt with that anxiety partly by cracking a constant stream of jokes. With Clockers, Price broke that mold dramatically, particularly in Strike’s case. Not only is Strike a black drug dealer, an identity which already puts him worlds apart from Price’s earlier Italian and Jewish sons-of-the-union heroes; what’s worse, he can’t indulge in the usual habit of compulsive joking because he’s got a chronic stutter, an ailment which humanizes him but also makes one suspect that Price was intentionally handicapping himself, forcing himself to create a central personality different from those he’d worked with before.
But Strike works as a character as much because of the intangible qualities he shares with his predecessors as because of the obvious traits which set him apart; because, as Michael Chabon put it, he’s still “not… a black character but… a Richard Price character.” His speech impediment and lack of education prevent his dreams of a better life from achieving much clarity or coherence, but he knows he wants a better life of some kind, and, in fact, he eventually starts to think that he might like to work with kids, much like Stony in Bloodbrothers or Kenny in Ladies’ Man. But, beyond that, he’s got the one quality that most defines Price’s protagonists: A keen, often miserable sense of heightened awareness. At one point he defines himself in opposition to his kingpin boss Rodney, who gets by on the strength of “an oblivious animal will;” Strike himself is anything but oblivious, and that’s why he’s been able to survive in the crack game as long as he has (nine months so far at the book’s outset, presented as an impressive stretch to run while avoiding prison or death). But that’s also why he understands, paralyzingly, that his survival is unlikely to last.
Rocco is a bit closer to what you might expect Price’s standard protagonist to look like at 43; he doesn’t stutter, anyway, which allows him some opportunities to chatter away in classic Price fashion. (One of these moments begins with a line that could serve as a nine-word summary of several of Price’s books: “In a burst of anxiety he began to talk.”) But his logorrhea is relatively restrained, and instead of worrying about whether or not he’ll ever achieve his dreams, he’s on the verge of retirement and at a loss as to what his dreams should be. It’s that very void of meaning in his life which allows him to latch onto the Adams case as a potential source of redemption.
(If there’s any character in Clockers who would seem to represent Price’s stand-in this time around, it’s Sean Touhey, a Hollywood actor who tags along with the detectives as a form of research for a role, much as Price did in preparation for Sea of Love and this book. Touhey’s insistence that “It’s not what’s the story, it’s who’s the guy” is particularly reminiscent of Price’s self-assessment that “I always begin with an interesting character in search of a story.” But the actor never seems in danger of stealing the show. He’s there only to accentuate Rocco’s desperation, and he’s always depicted more or less as a pretentious douche.)
The transitions between the Rocco chapters and the Strike ones aren’t too jarring partly because all the narration is written in the third person, allowing Price to showcase his ear for street dialect in the dialogue but avoid the potentially offensive pitfall of trying to write prose in his characters’ slang-ridden voices. Instead, the narration internalizes its subjects’ perspectives in subtler ways–like, for example, very carefully chosen similes. At one point a young acquaintance of Strike is described as “need[ing] to conceal his pleasure, hide it like it was felony-weight cocaine.” The book doesn’t put that simile in quotes, but it’s definitely being used because it’s the kind of comparison that would occur to a Strike himself.
As fully realized as Strike and Rocco are, though, their individual characterizations pale next to the vividness of the world they’re placed in. The book is just packed with obscure details that have an oh-yeah,-now-that-I-think-about-it-that-seems-right ring of truth: Garfield cats suction-cupped to the window of Rodney’s car; the pain of Rocco’s arm hairs catching in the cuff of a rubber glove; a cop prepping for a raid by stuffing light bulbs into his pants in case the residents of the apartment he’ll be busting into haven’t bothered to change theirs. Some moments feel real because they seem too strange to be made up, as when Rocco is directed to a junkie who’s set up shop behind a school desk in a field by an abandoned hospital, like some kind of post-apocalyptic information booth. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Price’s depiction of drug dealing or police work, but accuracy is only part of the point here; even a totally fictional science-fiction or fantasy environment rendered this intricately would be breathtaking.
As you might expect, any novel that focuses this intently on the milieu of the War on Drugs is going to have some sociopolitical commentary to offer, but Clockers keeps its moralizing entirely implicit. That actually may be the book’s most important quality: That it takes a calm, down-to-earth approach to a subject usually only viewed through after-school-special scolding or hip-hop glamor. Price’s main insight is that the cops and the dealers, as residents of one community, are incapable of being as adversarial towards one another as the idea of a “drug war” would suggest. They come off more like co-workers than enemies, trading jokes back and forth during raids and adopting the nicknames they’ve bestowed on each other. There are constant parallels between the two: Rodney and Rocco’s partner Mazilli both own local convenience stores, and even sell each other inventory wholesale. Rocco at one point mistakes the sound of his own beeper for that of Strike’s. We’re shown representatives of each side watching Letterman in consecutive chapters.
Of course, the cops-and-criminals-as-parallel-institutions angle will seem familiar, and maybe even cliched, to fans of The Wire, which Price would go on to write for (and which would appropriate several scenes from this very book). But Price was working this territory long before HBO was.
I’ll have a lot more to say about Clockers‘ influence on The Wire in my post on that show, but for now I’ll just note that the big difference between the two works (apart from The Wire‘s much wider scope) is the degree of resignation they display towards the social ills they depict, with Clockers coming off as the bleaker of the two, if you can believe that. Systemic change is always impossible on The Wire, but the viewer is led to sympathize with characters who argue fiercely that it shouldn’t be, God damn it. In Clockers, almost no one even bothers to argue; the closest we get is the self-apparent absurdity of a cop asking a dealer, “Do you think I’m an effective deterrent in the war on drugs?” There are details that ground everything in a historical or ideological context, as when a cop looking for hidden drugs checks Strike’s mouth “like a slave trader,” or when Rodney is referred to as a “ghetto capitalist,” but no one ever turns revolutionary. In one scene Strike listens to a whole anti-dope speech from a Nation of Islam member, agrees with most of it, and then just shrugs it off, unable to imagine his own actions having any significant effect on the world around him.
That bleakness doesn’t prevent Price from employing the sharp, dense sense of humor he developed in earlier novels, but it does give that humor a pitch-black undertone which kind of inverts its effect. When we’re told that Strike thinks “the girls were good for one thing only” before being made to understand that the one thing he thinks they’re good for is not sex but smuggling drugs–I mean, that’s “funny,” structurally, but it’s not any kind of laugh riot. There’s even a moment when Strike recalls hitting a subordinate so hard that the guy “had fallen down so fast his hat stayed in place right over where his head had been, like in a cartoon,” an appropriation of slapstick imagery even grimmer than similar moments in The Wanderers, which, again, was a pretty dark book itself.
But, like The Wire, Clockers is dark without being misanthropic towards its characters. As horrible as its milieu is, and as flawed as Strike and Rocco can be, we still sympathize with them and their struggles to escape the traps that seem to be closing around them, just as all of Price’s best books get us to feel for people we might be instinctively inclined to turn away from.
And of all those books, is Clockers absolutely the best one? I’m not entirely comfortable saying that it is, because I’m not sure it’s better-written than, say, The Wanderers or Ladies’ Man. (Or some of Price’s later books, but those build on the Clockers template to the extent that I don’t know if I’d regard them as separate accomplishments.) What makes it unique, though, is Price’s willingness to tell a story from outside his own frame of reference. Plenty of writers can chronicle their own harsh upbringings or their experiences as urban neurotics, and plenty have. It’s something else to capture and relay the stories of people who aren’t likely to ever pick up a pen themselves, and to do so powerfully and without just trying to serve your own agenda.
To quote at length from a scene I mentioned earlier, in which Rodney is literally leaning over Strike in order to curse out a cop across the way:
…Strike experienced a moment of pure clarity: he would never make it out of here, would never rise above his current position as Rodney’s lieutenant, because all the intelligence and prudence and vision came to nothing if it wasn’t tempered and supported by a certain blindness, an oblivious animal will that Rodney had… and that he, Strike, did not have. Rodney would survive all this… not because of his guts or his brains, but because he understood that there was no real life out here on the street, no real lives other than his own, and that what really mattered was coming first in all things, in all ways and at all costs.
That passage is how you know Price identifies with Strike despite the vast difference in their backgrounds, because, like Strike, Price understands that there is real life out on the street, and that there are real lives other than his own. However bleak Clockers might be, its demonstration of that understanding is exhilirating and inspiring.
III. A FEW OTHER NOTES
• Rocco bears a strong resemblance to Al Pacino’s detective character in Sea of Love, and several scenes here (the “cycle of shit” story, Rocco jokingly asking a young projects resident “Who’s Mr. Big?”) originated in that film’s screenplay. You can even find the “Who’s Mr. Big?” moment among the deleted scenes on the Sea of Love DVD.
• Among the people Price thanks in the book’s opening pages are Gene Canfield and Larry Mullane, actual cops who helped with Price’s research (and got quick cameos in Sea of Love). This interview with Mullane offers an interesting look into how that research went down.
• After those acknowledgements, Clockers opens with a quote from the Bible (Numbers 13:32-33). I’d take that as a nod to the Hubert Selby Jr. novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, which offers a Biblical epigraph at the beginning of each chapter and which Price has cited as his biggest literary influence.
• The final chapter alternates back and forth between Strike and Rocco in a manner similar to how the second-to-last chapter of The Wanderers jumped rapidly among the perspectives of its titular gang members.
• Speaking of The Wanderers, Strike seems as ignorant about Asians as Richie was in that book: “Except for the Reds, Richie thought most Chinks were pretty harmless, and he liked Chinese food,” while “[a]ll Strike knew about Oriental people was that they worked hard and didn’t laugh.”
• Rocco and his partner are at one point shown “watching an old Richard Widmark movie on television,” seemingly a sly reference to Widmark films like Night and the City and Kiss of Death which Price would eventually help remake.
• Clockers itself would be brought to the screen in 1995; in fact, Universal made a bit of a stir by buying the film rights for $1.9 million prior to the book’s publication. Martin Scorsese was originally attached to direct, but the project would ultimately be helmed by Spike Lee. I’ll have more thoughts on that adaptation in a later post.
• The title of Price’s upcoming novel The Whites is a reference to Moby-Dick; apparently the new book features cops discussing criminals they always wanted to catch but who got away–”white whales,” so to speak. Clockers offers its own Moby-Dick reference in the form of Ahab’s, the fast food place where Darryl works before being killed. I could just be reading too much into this, but Price might be ironically alluding to Darryl being Strike’s white whale, or Strike eventually becoming Rocco’s, each a pathetic, misguided excuse for a nemesis.
Next week: It’s back to the silver screen with a (much shorter, I promise) post on the 1992 remake of Night and the City, starring Robert De Niro.