Richard Price is one of those writers who keep the American Dream theme alive by tracing its demise. He is an F. Scott Fitzgerald without the lyricism, an Arthur Miller minus the overt politics and tragic grandeur. Price is closer in spirit and in some ways even in style to Theodore Dreiser, with whom he shares a detached but nevertheless evident sympathy for suffering humanity. Even more, Price resembles the slightly lesser but more recent Naturalists, James T. Farrell, Hubert Selby, and John Rechy. These chroniclers of America’s urban underbelly differ markedly from Tom Wolfe, author of the best-selling The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), with which Clockers (mistakenly) has been compared. Price has little interest in stridently proclaiming realism’s second coming or in narrating the story of the age of greed and yuppie self-striving. His characters are too busy just trying to survive, both physically and psychically.
Survival is Price’s abiding theme. His highly acclaimed first novel, The Wanderers (1974), is set in a Bronx housing project and centers on Richie Gennaro, the seventeen-year-old “warlord” of a local gang. The novel succeeds in large part because it reads like some strange mutation of naturalist fiction, the hybrid offspring of television’s Happy Days, with its likable greaser The Fonz, and film noir in the American style of The Blackboard Jungle (1955). In Price’s second novel, Bloodbrothers (1976), Stony De Coca, Jr., discovers that one’s own family can be as dangerous and confining as any gang. At the age of eighteen, Stony has to decide whether to follow his father and uncle into the construction trades or strike out on his own. In Ladies’ Man (1978), thirty-year-old Kenny Becker finds himself alone. Losing his girlfriend and his job in quick succession, he wanders Manhattan’s singles scene only eventually to realize that “All my moves were frauds, to get out of things, not into them.” The Breaks (1983) received less praise than it deserved, perhaps because it is a “campus novel,” a subgenre more loved in the United Kingdom than in the United States. Peter Keller is graduated from a college that seems suspiciously like Cornell (where Price studied as an undergraduate) but is rejected by Columbia Law School. The family’s first-ever college graduate stays on hold for a year, unwilling to live out his parents’ version of his future—as a lawyer with a family and a suburban home—but also unsure just what it is that he wants to do.
Having had his first novel made into a film, Price wrote two successful and highly acclaimed film scripts during the 1980’s: The Color of Money (1986) and Sea of Love (1989). Both films offer additional evidence of Price’s obsessive interest in survival, particularly in the seamy and often violent side of American life. As mystery thriller and police story, Sea of Love represents something of a change in direction in Price’s work. Old preoccupations and new interests combine, often brilliantly, in Clockers, the novel that grew out of the research Price began doing for Sea of Love. Already teaching at a drug rehabilitation center in the Bronx, Price began accompanying New York City and Hudson County, New Jersey, police on their rounds, also hanging out with the “clockers,” young, low-level drug dealers.
The two or more years of research that went into its writing give the novel its aura of authenticity and immediacy, but it is Price’s highly personalized and deeply autobiographical vision that gives the novel its narrative drive and depth. At the opening of Clockers, Strike surveys his small corner of the two-square-block Roosevelt Housing Project in fictional Dempsy, New Jersey, located along the actual JFK Boulevard that runs from Bayonne through Jersey City and Union City. At 5’7” and 125 pounds, Strike survives by a combination of luck and sense, living by his three golden rules: don’t do drugs, don’t get greedy, and don’t trust anyone. He oversees a crew that sells $10 bottles of cocaine for Rodney Little, who in turn works for a dealer named Champ. The pay is good but in a sense worthless. Possessions only make a dealer conspicuous, a target for thieves and for “knockos” (narcotics police). It cannot even be used to buy one’s way out of dealing, for dealing is the only skill clockers have. Having “no option but to do as he was told,” Strike is reminded of his helplessness and hopelessness with each bout of stammering, with each ulcer attack, and with each humiliating police search. In a world in which the average clocker lasts about six months on the street, Strike is, at nine months, a survivor. Just as clearly, he wants something more, not so much more money as more recognition, especially from Rodney, a surrogate father. He also wants more responsibility and more freedom but less pressure and less vulnerability.
His chance comes when Rodney offers to promote Strike from his outside perch to an inside job dealing “weight,” selling ounces out of Ahab’s, a fast-food shop. All Strike has to do is “get” Darryl Adams, who has been cheating on Rodney, selling some of his own weight along with Rodney’s, just as Rodney has...
(The entire section is 2170 words.)