By Richard Price – When I read Richard Price’s new crime novel The Whites earlier this year, I knew I needed to loop around and read his 1992 classic, widely considered his “best.” It really is knock-your-socks-off. In alternating chapters, it adopts the point of view of Strike, a young crack dealer in the housing projects of fictional Dempsey, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan, and homicide detective Rocco Klein.
Strike is a lower-level dealer who wants to get out of it, but without even a high school education, he can’t see any other path forward. Rocco is a seen-it-all investigator working in the county prosecutor’s office. What brings these two together is the murder confession by Strike’s straight-arrow brother Victor. Strike was supposed to make the hit, and didn’t, but he doesn’t think Victor did it either, and he wants to save his brother whatever way he can. Rocco figures Strike for the shooter, but can’t get Victor to change his story.
It’s a story about poor people, mostly black, and lost fathers, in which a few heroic mothers struggle to maintain family order. Strike’s cocaine- and crack-fueled world (he himself never uses the product) is under constant yet ineffectual harassment by federal, state, and local police, housing police, and narcotics officers. The homicide detectives, who are a little higher on the law enforcement pecking order, are less frequent visitors to this milieu. They have their own agenda and sometimes cooperate with the other authorities, and sometimes not. Strike can never be sure where loyalties lie, even those of his own runners (the “clockers,” because the drug market operates 24/7), who may ally with rival drug lords at any time. He certainly can’t trust Rocco, who is always playing games of his own.
What makes the book so powerful are the deep portraits of the characters. Both the main players are both strong and weak, the reader likes and loathes them in almost equal measure. Supporting characters—Rocco’s partner Mazilli and Strike’s boss Rodney, especially—are fully drawn and absolutely believable. The writing, including the characters’ dialog, is pitch-perfect.
Price was one of the writers for the best-tv-ever series [!!], The Wire, and reading this book after seeing the show, I certainly saw echoes of some of its notable characters: D’Angelo sitting on his perch in the projects, managing a team of young runners; Omar, the invincible hit-man cut down by a child; Officer Thomas Hauc, the violent and racist enforcer. Spike Lee made it into a movie in 1995 starring Mekhi Phifer, Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, and Delroy Lindo.
Even though the narcotics picture has changed in the past 23 years, this remains a riveting book because of the strength of its story and the social dysfunctions it lays bare, which are still, by and large, unresolved.