(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Hung loosely onto a mystery plot, Clockers immerses the reader in the drug culture of inner-city housing projects, where wealth and death are equally certain and swift. In the low-income housing projects of Dempsy, located between Newark and Jersey City, drugs, crime, and despair never sleep. Violent deaths are commonplace and excite little interest. The plainclothes police teams, dubbed “the Fury” for the dilapidated Plymouth Furys they drive, are as ubiquitous and predictable as AIDS. They follow a daily schedule of harassment, dispiritedly roughing up the “clockers” (twenty-four-hour drug dealers) and carting away the bodies that litter the streets.

Life offers two choices to residents of “the tiger pits.” The first is honest hard work, a dead-end road to poverty from Strike’s point of view. The second is big money with little effort, dealing crack cocaine in parks, playgrounds, and bars. For Strike, the choice is obvious. Working as Rodney’s lieutenant, he supervises a team of clockers from his spot on a park bench. While they retail ten-dollar bottles hidden in pockets and socks, Strike swigs vanilla soda to soothe his bleeding ulcer. Strike follows the rules: Do not flaunt your wealth, do not get greedy, and do not sample the merchandise.

A rigid hierarchy governs the drug trade, and honesty among thieves is law. Rodney runs the neighborhood crack concession from his candy store. Rodney says he suspects Darryl...

(The entire section is 554 words.)