599 pages; $22.95. Strike Durham is a cocaine dealer. Not the flashy, witty drug dealer of "Miami Vice" -- Strike leads a crew of teen-age, $10-bottle sellers in the New Jersey projects across the river from Manhattan.
At 19, Strike is a veteran of the streets. His tough-guy image keeps him alive. His bleeding ulcer is the result of turmoil, conflict and fear. Strike, it turns out, is more than just a dope-dealing thug. In many ways, despite the scars, he is still just a struggling kid who often wonders if there is a way out.
"Clockers" is a superb new novel that captures not only the raw nerve of the inner city but the human complexity of it. Richard Price, who spent two years exploring inner-city housing projects, gives us characters who are engrossing and frighteningly real.
Strike's brother, Victor, is a churchgoing, two-job father of two with a clean record. When he confesses to a drug murder, Detective Rocco Klein locks him up but is nagged by the belief that Victor didn't do it. Rocco is convinced Strike is the killer and sets out to prove it. But "Clockers" is in many ways a book about assumptions and the results of them. The reader is quickly told Strike didn't do it.
Strike's other adversary is Rodney, a vicious dealer who is Strike's drug boss. Rodney thrives on his power: "He was a damn addict as sure as any other bug-eyed dope fiend out here, hooked on being the 'man.' The man? Rodney was more like God because of those bottles. He couldn't drive twenty feet without causing someone to bubble over with hope and joy."
Throughout "Clockers," Mr. Price captures the misunderstandings between the cultures of the haves and have-nots. At one point, Rocco, who is hanging out in a ghetto grocery store owned by Rodney, chews out a black man who keeps coming in buying one beer at a time. "You ever hear of a six-pack. One trip, about ten cents cheaper a can. You should think about it."
After the man leaves, Rodney turns on Rocco and tells him: "The man got no money to sit in a bar, pay bar prices, leave a tip. See that street out there? That's his bar. Sit on a nice stoop, watch the girls go by. An' you the bartender. See what I'm sayin'?"
There is a lesson there. The man was finding his own dignity in a situation where there is little. It is this kind of writing that makes "Clockers" so much more than just a fascinating murder mystery. Yet this is not a book of social commentary. Mr. Price simply tells us his story of life among small-time drug dealers in a compelling, realistic way that lets us know that much of what we are reading is disturbingly true.