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Clockers

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For a month or two, any chump in the projects can sell crack cocaine. Buy some fancy basketball shoes, hang a few gold chains around his neck, wear a beeper, carry a piece, flash a fat roll of twenties, and cruise the streets in a shiny new car, eyeballing cops and laying down a rap beat that shakes windows a block away. But the key to long-term prosperity, Rodney Little tells his teenage protégés in Richard Price’s Clockers, a gritty, darkly funny novel about the New Jersey drug trade, is to think like every go-getting American entrepreneur from Jay Gatsby to Sam Walton.

”You got to start respecting yourself,” Rodney lectures his young charges as if they were so many Young Republicans. ”The nigger that spend it fast as he make it don’t believe it’s real. Don’t believe in hisself. He’s thinking with like a two-minute clock, thinking like a poor man, like his life is like day-to-day, minute-to-minute. He got no future ’cause he don’t think of no future.” The worst thing they can do, he emphasizes, is use dope themselves. As for moral qualms, Rodney has none. ”This whole country run by criminals — Wall Street, the govament, the po-lice. How you think the dope gets in town to begin with?”

By contrast, the cops in the fictional town of Dempsy — a decaying city in the industrial wasteland between Newark and Jersey City — are consumed by cynicism and gallows humor. To them, it’s all a game: one dirtball blowing away another, their job keeping score. When an associate of Rodney’s ends up shot to death in his car in the Holland Tunnel between New Jersey and New York, a Dempsy homicide detective turns it into a math problem. ”Juan got whacked at point X,” jokes Rocco Klein, ”he drove away losing blood at the rate of a pint every ninety seconds. He was driving forty-five miles an hour and he bought the farm two miles inside the tunnel. So for ten points, what shit-skin in what New Jersey town did Juan? Piece of cake.”

But both men are kidding themselves. For all his chamber of commerce rap, Rodney’s a liar, a cheat, and, as necessary, a killer. And while Rocco talks of retirement, of chucking ”this life, with its… Rodneys, its bloody burning children and walking-dead parents, just kick(ing) dirt over the whole show, like a cat burying its shit,” he really can’t resist the moral thrill of the job, nor the temptation to embark upon one last crusade.

What gets Rocco going is the apparently motiveless murder of the assistant manager of Ahab’s, a fast-food joint on the meanest street in Dempsy. If the victim was such a clean-cut kid, how come he had $2,500 cash in his pocket? The mystery only deepens, moreover, when an even more unlikely suspect — Victor Dunham, the manager of a rival restaurant named Hambone’s, a churchgoing young man with two kids and two jobs — confesses to the killing. To the detective, it’s clear the kid’s lying to protect somebody. His suspicions fasten upon the suspect’s brother, a lieutenant of Rodney’s whose street name is Strike.

Trouble is, Strike didn’t do the killing either — although Rodney wanted him to. But the last thing in the world the terrified, conscience-stricken boy can afford to do is tell a cop what he thinks he knows. A skilled novelist (The Wanderers, Bloodbrothers, The Breaks) who has spent the past decade writing screenplays (The Color of Money, Sea of Love), Price clearly knows his stuff. Clockers resonates with authenticity and pitch-perfect dialogue throughout. A bit slow getting started, and more than a bit Hollywood-contrived at the end, it’s a remarkable piece of work all the same. B+