Monday, July 02, 2007

"Freedomland" - Richard Price

While not a sequel to "Clockers", "Freedomland", from 1998, is set in Richard Price's fictional New Jersey cities of Dempsy and Gannon. Respectively they're stand-ins for Jersey City and Bayonne with fictional room to spare.

There's still crime and drugs on the streets around the Armstrong Projects in Dempsy and their mostly black tenants but it's not like the crack era depicted in the "Clockers". In fact it's barely alluded to in "Freedomland". In the first book, black-white interaction seemed to be limited to white cops and junkies and teenage black crack dealers. flying squads of narcotics cops are constanly storming the parks and playgrounds in "Clockers" rounding up everyone they feel like. By the era of "Freedomland" that doesn't seem to be the norm anymore. The cops, instead, now exist to establish a cordon sanitaire around the projects and keep blacks out of Gannon.

"Freedomland" opens with a wounded white woman, Brenda Martin, wondering through the Armstrong Houses and into the local emergency room where she says she's just been carjacked by a black man. Eventually she also lets the interviewing detective know her four year old son, Cody, was in the back seat of her stolen car. From the moment that information is relayed to police headquarters the two cities, white Gannon and heavily black and brown Dempsy, begin moving towards an explosion in slow motion.

The inevitable disaster, and Price makes it clear from the beginning that it is inevitable, is seen through the eyes of Det. Lorenzo Council and Jesse Haus, a reporter for the Dempsy evening paper. Council is older and black and lives for the job. His range is the Armstrong Houses and he will do whatever he needs to keep things calm, help those in need and ensure that deceny is given a chance and the tenants are treated with respect. Haus is young and white, the child of communist party parents who still live in projects because moving out when they turned black would have been a racist act in their eyes. Both are drawn to Brenda by their job and become entangled in her story.

While both Council and Haus suspect that Brenda isn't telling the whole story they and the rest of the city's law enforcement apparatus and regional media have to proceed on the information at hand. Soon there is a blockade around the Armstrong Houses, long outstanding minor warrants being enforced and violent roustings being conducted. There are no surprises in the book and I think that's one of Price's goals.

We all know that there's crime in the projects, that there are struggling working people there and that most of us (by which I mean middle class educated white folks) couldn't care less.

When a cute little white kid goes missing it's bound to be the lead news story. When a cute little black kid goes missing it's going to be on a middle page of the paper. There's just too much history to point to dismiss that. It's not the cops' fault, but it is the law enforcement hierarchy and media's fault.

We live in a country where we willingly tolerate cities becoming hollowed out shells and abandoned many of the people left there when our parents and grandparents moved to the suburbs. As long as the police kept the criminals in those cities and away from our nice streets we didn't care. When moments arises like the book's plot we want an immediate military style crackdown. At some point there are bound to be explosions.

As the truth is teased out by Council, Haus and group of semi-professional missing child finders Dempsy and Gannon's clash slowly builds from a series of skirmishes to full dress battle. Over a few days and nights years of black-white tension come to what Price portrays as foregone conclusion.

While "Clockers" raced to its end, "Freedomland" moves with at a funereal pace. The book is packed (and padded) with incident and incidental characters. There's just too much. Price's prose is soul wrenching at times but it's not enough to overcome the book's ridiculous length. When the story's come to its end there's still one hundred more pages to go. Since there's no mystery he needs to give his readers more than endless repetitions of the same points and that's what the book does.

Not since "Bleak House" have I taken this long to read a book. It's not a bad book and Price's book is about things we don't talk and scream about till something's done about them. It's about the rage and devastation that lives on the periphery of our own comfortable lives and it's a story told with appropriate rage. It just doesn't have to be so long.

No comments: