Clockers by Richard Price

The problem with being quasi aware of a book but not really aware is that you may form an opinion of it that has nothing to do with the book itself, a mistaken impression. I ran into this with Clockers by Richard Price. I remembered having heard about Clockers. I remembered that they’d made a movie based on it, and that it didn’t really interest me. I wasn’t real up on reading the book, but I did anyway…and realized that I was thinking of a different movie entirely.

Clockers, having nothing to do with the movie I remembered and wasn’t interested in, was actually pretty good.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for George Pelecanos)

Clockers primarily centers on two men. The first is a young drug dealer in a New Jersey ghetto, ‘Strike’ Dunham. The other is a burned out homicide detective called ‘Rocco’ Klein.

Strike is in a precarious position. He runs a crew that sells a large amount of cocaine in small increments on the corner of his housing project. His boss is pressuring him to get into even bigger things, with bigger responsibilities. He flies low, not flashing money everywhere or wasting it. Not sampling product. Still, he’s in the midst of the danger of the street corner, the danger of what his boss is asking him, the danger from both honest and crooked cops, and the danger from his boss overreaching the next boss up the chain. Most in his position don’t last long, but Strike is proud that he’s lasted at least nine months.

Strike hated having a gun, only got it because Rodney had told him he was too little and skinny to get anybody to toe the line on just say-so, that he had to have a piece to do the job. But the truth of it was, he was scared of the gun once he got it—not scared of shooting somebody, but scared of his own anger and what trouble he could get into for shooting somebody. His fear of having to use it probably served him just as well, sometimes even made him creative. One evening three months before, he had found out that some kid working for him was going over to Rydell and selling his bottles for fifteen instead of ten, then pocketing the extra five for himself. Not wanting to use the gun, Strike went over to a pet store, bought a dog chain and whipped this greedy little motherfucker to the ground in front of an entire Saturday night’s playground crowd, standing over him like some heave-chested slave master. It was just business, but Strike didn’t like to think about how good it felt, didn’t like to imagine where that might have ended for him if he’d had that gun in his hand.

Let’s not forget Rocco. Rocco is investigating a murder…the murder of a double-crossing drug dealer Strike’s boss ordered Strike to accomplish in order for strike to take his place. Strike didn’t do it, decided he wasn’t capable, but someone his straight edge brother knew did…and his brother confessed to doing the killing himself. Strike doesn’t really know what happened, only having some ideas. It’d be good if he figured it out, because Rocco certainly wants to find out.

After an hour of watching Mazilli threaten Maldonado with every cliché in the book, from thirty years of darkness to unspeakable sexual bondage, and after an hour of watching the kid respond with a heartrending performance of baffled and quivering innocence, Rocco had gotten bored and decided to cut short the whole damned passion play. He returned to the squad room for a one-on-one with Maldonado’s father and simply told him that unless his son gave up the gun in the next five minutes, the old man could kiss his bolide action goodbye. And in the time it took for Mazilli to smoke a cigarette out on the front steps, Rocco and Touhey sitting alongside him watching the sun go down behind the steel spider of the Majeski Skyway, Nelson Maldonado had changed his tune, decided to come clean and cough up the murder weapon. Rocco had no idea what the father used to threaten the kid that was actually worse than County, but in the end he didn’t really give a shit.

Things get complicated from there. Yes, that’s sarcasm…but truthful as well.

Clockers is gritty, complex, and intensely vivid. I’m not much for crime drama, but this is extremely well written crime drama. It may not exactly be my favorite book, but I’m definitely glad I didn’t stick with my original mistake and sat down to read it. It’s a heavy ride.


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