Sunday, December 31, 2006

32. The Corner: a Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood by David Simon and Edward Burns

The Corner cover pictureI took this fat hardback (576 pages) out of the library to read during the xmas holidays. I am totally hooked on the Wire (without a doubt the best show on television), but what blew me away was an interview with David Simon where he just tears into America. It's a podcast on the HBO website. They start out by asking him a question about his "passion" and he says "I don't think it's about passion. I'm angry." and then he proceeds to rip into the government, bureaucracies, and us, criticizing the current situation in America with such vigour, honesty and intelligence that I was wondering if he was really American. He mentioned his book "Homicide" as if it is was well known, where he says some of these ideas are discussed. So I went to look for it and came away with his newer work, "The Corner" instead.

The Corner is an amazing work of journalism. Simon and Burns (an ex-cop and current teacher) spent four years just hanging out in the worst drug corners of inner-city Baltimore. They and their involvement are almost entirely transparent in the course of the book, but they explain their process in detail in an epilogue. The Corner follows the lives of a shattered family, a husband and wife who are both junkies and their son, a sometime dealer and street tough. Each has a distinct personality and a distinct role in the shooting galleries and corners of West Baltimore and through their roles we get a look at the drug market, the community of addicts, the schools, the hospitals and the cops. The majority of the book takes place in the world of addicts, hanging out in abandoned rowhouses, scoring and shooting, recuperating, hunting out scams for a bit more cash to score and shoot again.

If you watch the Wire, this is Bubbles' world. And even then, it is far less glamourous than anything in the show. The violence, when it occurs, is workmanlike. The dealers come off more like fast food employees (though they make a lot more money), basically working hard every day, serving customers. And the addicts scams and money-making schemes are small-time, pathetic, industrious like rats at best. They strip copper wire from old houses, switch vials of heroin for ones filled with water, borrow and beg from relatives. Lying and scheming is a given.

The book is so thorough and treats the main characters with such depth and care, that as you work through it, learning about the drug trade, about the failure of institutions at every level (driven by our unwillingness to see the problem as a human one), you really get into the story of the family. It's so sad because the patriarch was one of the thousands of black men who came to the north after the war with nothing in his pocket and was able to find good work, marry a woman, buy a nice house and become part of a poor but warm and thriving community in Baltimore. Now he and his wife are surrounded by dealers, fearing getting shot or having the house burn down because of the abandoned building next door, cops breaking the door down looking for their grandson.

I could write about this book for a long time. For me, it did nothing to change my opinion because I share the opinion of the authors. I taught at a school with some kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, but it seemed like Mayberry compared to this book. Just getting these kids to even come to school is basically impossible. But for anyone else who is still labouring under the withering american myth that everybody has an opportunity to succeed if they only work hard and apply themselves, The Corner should be mandatory reading. Simon and Burns pull no punches. If you grow up in this world, you are fucked. And we don't care. He compares convincingly our attempts to solve the problem with our strategies to win the Vietnam war, and he predicts (so far correctly) that we will fail. Except this time, the enemy is us.

A great book. I'm definitely getting Homicide as soon as I can lay my hands on it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cool. I actually had no idea that these guys had written these books and now I want to read them both.

Not sure if you already knew this but The Corner was made into an HBO miniseries that got them greenlighted to make The Wire. I am looking to watch it.