American Dreams: ‘Clockers’ by Richard Price

Nathaniel Rich revisits Richard Price’s ‘Clockers,’ a devastating 1992 novel about inner-city decay, drug crime, and the spread of AIDS.

Clockers is a 600-page novel about the investigation of a single, unspectacular crime: a drug-related killing in a New Jersey slum. Price’s fifth novel is not a conventional murder mystery, as there is almost nothing mysterious about the murder: a 21-year-old drug dealer is dead, and his killer, also 21, has turned in the murder weapon and confessed. There’s even an eyewitness who saw everything. It’s an open-and-shut case, what homicide detectives call “closed by arrest,” and a 30-year sentence seems inevitable. But one detail doesn’t sit right with the homicide detective, Rocco Klein: the motive. The killer, Victor Dunham, works two jobs and is the devoted father of two children. Unlike his younger brother, Strike, who oversees a crew of cocaine dealers, Victor has never committed a crime. When asked why he committed the murder, Victor claims “self-defense.” Long after his version of the events has been debunked, Victor continues to repeat his story, until it becomes a deranged mantra: self-defense.

But what is Victor defending himself against? Not his victim—Victor barely knew the man. The answer doesn’t come at once, but accrues over hundreds of pages, through Price’s evocation of Dempsy, a fictional city that bears some resemblance to Jersey City and Newark. Dempsy, also the setting of Price’s later novels Freedomland and Samaritan, looks, as one character remarks, “like Central America”: a wasteland of storefront churches, deserted lots, hair salons, candy stores, and “forlorn and battered doll houses under artificial light,” which surround the 13 high rises of the Roosevelt Houses—twelve hundred families over two square blocks, under constant police surveillance. Dempsy is a war zone, and nobody gets out alive. For those who start dealing drugs, or clocking, the life expectancy shrinks even further: “A good run on the street was six months, and you had to have a clear head and a lot of self-confidence to make it even that long.”

The exception to this rule is Rodney Little, a 37-year-old drug lieutenant who makes almost a million dollars a year on the street. In a scene that serves as a parable for the whole novel, Rodney recalls the first murder he committed in the early seventies. Rodney and his partner, a dead-eyed assassin named Erroll Barnes, set out for revenge on the three clockers who beat them on a dope deal. When they corner their victims in a tenement shooting gallery, Erroll waving a sawed-off shotgun, the three men start blubbering: “Yo please, please, it ain’t personal man, it’s the sickness, it’s the sickness.” Erroll shoots two of them, then commands Rodney to kill the third. “Shoot him,” says Erroll, “or I’m gonna shoot you.”

The moral of the story, says Rodney, is that you can’t trust anyone. But the more telling detail lies in the pleading of the victims: “Please mister … I’m sorry man, I’m sorry … it’s the sickness.”

In Clockers everyone is sick. It’s not just the drug addicts and alcoholics, who walk around like ghosts, with “scooped-out” looks and trembling gaits. Strike, Victor’s brother, has such bad chronic stomach problems that he’s always drinking bottles of vanilla Yoo-Hoo for relief. Later, when he’s diagnosed with a perforated ulcer, he starts chugging Mylanta, but it barely helps. Tyrone, an 11-year-old boy who tags around Strike, starts to double over himself, holding his own stomach—the gesture begins as emulation, but it’s soon clear that the boy, who begins running drugs for Strike, is in just as much pain as his idol. Detective Klein is sick in another way, his grim fascination with death turning him into a ghost. Around his young wife and infant child, he’s absent to the point of invisibility: “Alls I care about is dead people” is his refrain. Even Erroll, the indomitable professional killer, is ill. He’s lost weight, he foams at the mouth, and Rodney even has to carry him up a flight of stairs “like a baby.” Like so many in the Roosevelt Houses, Erroll has the Virus—or AIDS, though the disease is almost never called by its name in the novel.

Ronald Reagan didn’t call the disease by its name until 1987, and five years later, as the plague grew, few in the public sphere referred to it in a voice louder than a whisper. “A Whisper of AIDS” was the name of the speech given at the 1992 Republican convention by Mary Fisher, the daughter of a Detroit multimillionaire and G.O.P. fundraiser. Fisher, who had contracted AIDS from her husband, begged her party to “lift the shroud of silence which has been draped over the issue of HIV/AIDS.” In tacit response to Pat Buchanan, who during the primary campaign had called AIDS “nature’s retribution” against homosexuals, Fisher said, “We have killed each other—with our ignorance, our prejudice, and our silence.”

By the early nineties, between 1 and 1.5 million Americans were infected, and the disease was spreading most rapidly among intravenous drug users, particularly in America’s inner cities. Whereas AIDS was stigmatized for its association with homosexuality, in Clockers, the Virus carries a different stigma. It is a sign of weakness—the weakness of drug addiction and the weakness of succumbing to a disease—in a culture where weakness means certain death.

For Strike, the Virus was something out of the monster closet that struck at the heart of his lifelong dread of others, a ghastly reminder for him to stay true to his instinct for distance. The Virus wasn’t a disease; it was a personal message from God to the Devil …

The Virus becomes everything Strike fears—death, retribution, and prison, where the infection rate is even higher than in the projects. But the Virus seems inescapable. Strike begins seeing signs wherever he goes, as when he visits his parole officer, who has hung a poster of a skeleton on a pitcher’s mound. The skeleton’s hat says AIDS and he’s pitching a hypodermic needle; the poster reads “Don’t Let Him Strike You Out.”

But Strike has already struck out, as has everybody else born into the Roosevelt Houses and housing projects like it all over the country. As Price’s novel so vividly demonstrates, poverty is deadly as any plague. Like the Virus, its spread is abetted by silence, institutionalized racism, indifference, and ignorance. It’s not just the clockers that lose the fight. It’s also people like Victor Dunham, who can only stay out of trouble for so long before his natural defenses are overwhelmed and he too falls prey to the fever.

Other notable novels published in 1992:

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison Leviathan by Paul Auster Vox by Nicholson Baker Arcadia by Jim Crace Scar Lover by Harry Crews White Jazz by James Ellroy Dreaming in Cuban by Christina García All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy Sylvia by Leonard Michaels Jazz by Toni Morrison Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates Blue Calhoun by Reynolds Price The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Pulitzer Prize:

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

National Book Award:

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

Bestselling novel of the year:

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King

About this series:

This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2012. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.

Previous Selections:

1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon

1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson

1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux