November 16, 2010

The Corner (#120)

The Corner by David Simon and Ed Burns

What I said then:

"A year in the life of a Baltimore drug corner, as witnessed by the guys who went on to make The Wire."

What I say now: 

Okay, before I even start, let me just say openly that if you haven't seen The Wire then: A) You've missed out on the best TV show ever made, and B) You're probably going to feel a little excluded by most of this review. So go watch it (it's only about sixty hours of television) and meet me in the next paragraph.

Before they were television producers, David Simon was a journalist at the Baltimore Sun, and Ed Burns was, first, a homicide detective, and later a teacher at an inner-city public high school. Simon wrote an earlier non-fiction book called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets in which he spent a year with the Baltimore PD's homicide unit. The Corner is, in a way, a companion piece to the earlier work. In it, Simon and Burns spend a year on a drug corner (or, as they put it, an open-air drug market) at Monroe and Fayette streets in inner-city Baltimore, sharing the lives of some of the residents.

There's Fat Curt, an aging tout whose hands and feet are swollen due to medical complications of his drug addiction, and Ella Thompson, a woman who channels a very private pain into incessant community work and volunteering. And there's a family: Fran Boyd, a drug fiend and mother of two, her ex-partner Gary McCullough, striving to retain some semblance of dignity as his addiction strips him of everything else, and DeAndre, their teenage son, clumsily becoming a man amid the wreckage of his parents' lives. These are the core cast, but the book reaches its tentacles much deeper than just five people. Friends, brothers and sisters, parents and children, neighbours, fellow fiends (the author's term) - all have their story told, with equal weight given to everybody's struggle.

And that's the best thing about the book: it gives voice to those usually left voiceless and forgotten, reminding us that even people who can fit under a nice easy pejorative label - 'drug addicts' and 'drug dealers' in this case - are still people, deserving of as much time and attention as anybody else. It's pretty uncomfortable reading in a lot of ways (an Australian version might be 'a year in a detention centre' ...), but it's definitely worthwhile. 

The Wire is just about the toughest, grittiest television you'll ever watch. But here's the thing: as I was reading The Corner, I kept thinking 'Wow, they softened The Wire a lot from Baltimore's day-to-day reality.' As bad as The Wire makes parts of Baltimore look, it's kid-stuff compared to the portrait they paint in this book. The show throws its audience a couple of bones that the book can't: the character of Bubbles, for example, or the organised nature of the Barksdale and Stanfield crews, or the fact that those crews aren't made up almost entirely of drug fiends themselves.

But Simon and Burns don't just give us a devastating portrait of that one corner (one corner out of, they guess, between 100 and 120 drug markets in the city of Baltimore at the time, a city of about 700,000 people). They also examine the historical forces that have created the corners, giving a brief history of the post-war American underclass that is horrific in its cold logic. At no point, really, could anybody have done any different. Politicians and police and dealers alike, everybody's hands are neatly tied by circumstance, and they have been for the last fifty or so years. It's a sobering thought, and a sobering book.

In a recently-written epilogue, the authors recount an incident that occured a few years after the book's release: "A young councilman, sensing an opportunity, held up a copy of The Corner for television cameras at the corner of Monroe and Fayette and declared that, if elected, he would take back the drug corners and make the city safe again. He would fight the drug war they way it needed to be fought. It was pointed out to the ambitious councilman that the book he was holding was, in fact, an argument against drug prohibition, that it depicted an increasingly draconian legal system's inability to mitigate against human frailty and despair, against economic neglect and institutional racism, against a failed education system and the marginalization of America's urban population. The councilman conceded that he had not actually read the book, but that he was nonetheless the man for the job and indeed, he was twice elected mayor of Baltimore. He is now the governor of Maryland." 

Wire fans will recognise more than a hint of Carcetti in there. And so the same old ideas that have never worked get spun out again, and nothing ever changes. I know I've been going on a loving-and-recommending-everything kick recently, but this book is amazing as well. Sorry.


about to read: Weeds in the Garden of Words by Kate Burridge
books to go: 119

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