Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Price depicts the drug culture accurately and fully. He describes without judging, identifies without sympathizing. As narrator, he remains outside the action, but the reader sees as he sees. No novel has captured better than Clockers the relativity of truth. Born in a room without doors, who would think to cut one? Born in Dempsy, who would imagine security, much less seek to achieve it? When Rocco Klein invents for Tyrone Jeeter a false but plausible explanation for a crime, the reader understands immediately that truth stands not as an absolute but as a contrivance to be molded into the transient delusion called hope. Such distortions are all that allow clockers and knockos alike to endure another day, another week, another eternity.

Everyone in Dempsy—even Strike, who never touches drugs—is addicted. Strike and Rodney are as hooked on the profits and excitement of clocking as Erroll once was on heroin. Klein, bemoaning his lot one minute, delights in it the next. Sipping vodka and cranberry juice, he yearns for another fix, feeling “a thickness in his blood, anxious for something to happen, for somebody to kill somebody, for the beeper on his hip to go off.”

Even the honest, hard-working citizens of the projects are addicted. Without the addicts and dealers to whom they compare themselves, they would be forced to admit they were just as “bricked up with pain” as those they condemn. They need the drug culture to confirm their superior status as much as the clockers require easy money and the addicts crave their highs.

Price finds a paradoxical dignity in the people of Dempsy, especially Strike and Rocco, despite their addictions. He lays bare their naked pettiness, villainy, and weakness, yet he allows them redemption through their sensitivity, courage, and persistence. In those who survive against all odds, Price finds hope for the human condition. Their continuing existence offers promise that the human spirit might someday triumph. The light of hope never brightens, but neither does it dim. “If God invented anything better’n drugs, he kept it for hisself,” says Rodney. Strike flicks a roach off his jeans with a fistful of money and concludes that the hustler’s ultimate victim is himself.