Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Richard Price, famous for his in-depth, real-life research, spent two years riding with police and living among clockers and their clients. He filled a stack of notebooks with sights, sounds, and impressions before writing Clockers, and his first draft exceeded a thousand pages. He needed another eighteen months to achieve the remarkable precision of the finished work. Perhaps only the clockers themselves could judge the accuracy of Price’s work, but to outsiders, its tone rings true.

Price is a master of language, and Clockers is worth study for no other reason than to see how he captures the essence of an alien world. He writes with the lexicon of the projects. “Pipeheads” are crack smokers; drug runners are “mules.” “Redi Rocks” is crack ready to smoke; “stepping on it” is the process of diluting crack with sugar, laxative, or rat poison. His descriptions, while neither lengthy nor labored, reveal his themes. For example, an indoor homicide smells, to Rocco, like “watered-down Old Spice or a sweating fat lady—not altogether unpleasant, kind of intimate, the smell of a whole life opened up to him with all its embarrassments and little drawers.” The sounds of the police station’s receiving unit are “disembodied shouts and barks that ricocheted off the walls like bullets fired inside a steel drum.”

Price is a genius of dialogue. Each character speaks with a unique and consistent voice. Interactions are sharp, focused, lean, and rich. Pace and tension ebb and wane with an energy few writers can control. Price’s description and dialect bring the street drug trade to life. Acting more as a reporter than a fiction writer, Price takes his readers into the basements and back alleys of the urban wilderness.