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.

"Clockers" - Robert Price

One of the authors praised by Stanley Crouch in "the Artificial White Man" for examing America and race in depth, is Richard Price. Actually, he writes about Tom Wolfe, whom he praises, giving a speech in which he extolls Price for moving into Jersey City for over a year and striving to understand the place down to its sinews and guts and then producing the novel "Clockers".

Published in 1992, "Clockers" is about race, murder and drugs in Jersey City (called Dempsy in the book) in the early nineties. We see the violence and devastation through the eyes of 19-year old, ulcer ridden dealer Strike and just shy of retirement homicide detective Rocco Klein. Both are men at their limits of mental endurance and achingly striving to understand how they managed to lose control of their lives and how can they climb out of the pits they dug themselves.

Strike and Rocco have grown up, like all of us, with strongly held notions of how the world works. For years nothing they've encountered has discouraged their prejudices. When a fast food manager is murdered and it's discovered he's dealing from the restaurant things begin spinning out of control for Strike and Rocco become obsessed to the point of possibly screwing up his looming retirement.

Strike's brother, a church-going, hard working man who always does the right thing confesses to the murder. Strike can't believe his brother did it and neither can Rocco. Strike tries to find out what happened in hopes of saving his brother. Rocco too disbelieves the confession, instead believing in Strike's guilt. As the two fight their way through the streets and bureaucracy of Dempsy to discover some sort of truth we're given a deep tour of economic despair, drug abuse, racial hatred and simple police callousness.

Price writes gorgeous prose (at time a little too so) that sounds believable even when coming from dangerous thugs. Strike's boss, the mid level dealer, Rodney Little, with dreams of legitimacy while Faginishly building new teams of juvenile dealers to move his product, is one of the most disturbing villains encountered in recent realistic fiction. Rodney's manipulation of Strike is Mephistophelean.

"Clockers" exposes the war on drugs as a failure and the urban decay that robs too many American's of any sort of hope and ultimately the rest of the country of the contributions of too many of its citizens trapped in the rotten hulks of long lost cities.

"The Thanatos Syndrome" - Walker Percy

I was looking up some background on the late historian Shelby Foote and found a lote of references to his friendship with another Southern writer, Walker Percy. From there I decided to check out Walker Percy. I found a few articles and interviews with Percy that made me want to give his books a whirl. The theme he explored until his death was the creep of relativism and how it natuarally undermines a larger, societal morality.

"The Thanatos Syndrome" takes that theme to its darkest conclusion and tries to pull it apart and expose the snake coiled around its heart. At what point does abortion lead to proactive euthanasia of the disabled and elderly? When does the belief that mankind is perfectible lead to re-education camps and ultimately the ovens?

Percy's hero Dr. Tom More, a psychiatrist recently released from prison and returned to his old home in Louisiana. Beset by family problems, diminished faith and a general seething rage at the world around him he quickly finds out things seem to be getting horribly strange in his town. People are emotionally flat but sexually aggressive. Some of the same people are suddenly possessed of great calculating ability and utter geographical recall. There are also signs of child molestation at his children's private school.

Soon More realizes that his town is the center of some sort of experiment being conducted to improve mankind. If it all recalls some seventies medical thriller (like Coma, just not as boring) that was exactly Percy's goal. He hoped he could bring the issues that moved him most by deliberately creating a blockbuster style thriller. He almost succeeded.

Parts of the book are too dry and pendantic which is a shame. Percy's ideas are important and worth examinating but a times the book just slips into a little too slow a gear. Is mankind perfectible? As a Christian I of course don't think so and that's the basis of Percy's argument. He makes a strong case for what are seemingly logical outcomes from the dismissal of any sort of greater morality from human interaction. What happens when man takes it on himself to try to reform man? What doors are opened and how dark a place do they lead to?

Maybe a non-fiction work would have been bettered suited to Percy's examination of the questions he wanted raised. Unfortunately he tried to write a thriller and his skill just didn't meet the task he set himself. The action sequences are sloppy and confusing. The dialogue is too long and drawn out to be part of a potboiler and is overwritten for where it's placed.

I haven't read anything else by Percy yet but I suspect that the thriller just wasn't something he'd schooled himself in well enough to actually write a really good one. I've got some of his other books and "The Moviegoer" is always showing up on lists as one of the most important American books of the last century so I sort of feel obligated to give it a try someday.