Nothing ever shown on television anywhere ever is as brilliant as The Wire, so it’s not like David Simon and Edward Burns, the show’s creators, need props from some random writer. But before The Wire took off, the pair wrote a fantastic sprawl of a book called The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (1997), which has largely dropped from popular memory despite being the basis for a celebrated HBO miniseries. I read it over the holidays, was struck by it, and wanted to write something about why I was so impressed.
The gist: buy the book. Help writers survive. Books are cheap like Coors Light, but unlike a macrobrew twelver they actually make life better.
The Corner does not purport to have the same scope in terms of themes or characters as The Wire. The reader doesn’t spend much time with cops (though some pages are reserved for isolated wrecks like Bob Brown, a Baltimore PD Ahab still walking the long tail of a pointless war); or with highly organized drug crews like Stringer and Avon Bell’s (we only meet part-time teenagers gunning for blunt and Jordans money); or with city politicians, union bosses, stick-up boys, or itinerant European gangsters.
What it does have, instead, is incredible depth and patience with a smaller set of black Americans from Baltimore’s failed-state western neighborhoods. This is a “sad and extraordinary place,” as Simon and Burns put it, and you might call their approach Season 4 coverage, after The Wire‘s crushing foray into the lives of teenagers in city public schools. But the focus is even tighter here, because there are no Major Colvins or Marlo Stanfields, there is no Keema, nor an Omar.
The narrative follows a mostly civilian, localized orbit, although most of the teenage boys are training to be soldiers and slingers. There’s the community center, run by Ella Thompson, who is still fighting against a social collapse that was assured years ago, her center hanging on with almost no money in a flaming neighborhood; there is “the lost platoon” of junkies in shooting galleries in wrecked rowhouses; there are the schools, unable to change what is happening outside their gates but blamed for it anyway; there are the dope crews and young moms and thirtysomethings dying of AIDS; there are, at the center of the ethnography, ordinary poor Americans undone by drugs as much as by the depraved “jail ’em all” stupidity of the drug war that began with Nixon and has continued through Obama. The core of this narrative core comprises Gary McCullough, Fran Boyd, and DeAndre, the first two coke and heroin addicts who used to be married, the latter their complicated, tall, witty teenage son, a kid on his way to fleeting second-lieutenant drug-market success and a city grave by twenty.
The book’s prose lyricism is often staggering. A blend of subjects’ voices and authorial narration, it gets to some heights journalism usually doesn’t. There are about a thousand lines that will have you asterisking and highlighting. I’ll lay out a handful. *hums and digs around in cardboard box*
Two heroin shooters “simply sit, letting the chemistry happen.” A cocaine addict is described as “a charged particle loosed beyond the human condition, frenzied, spinning through the streets from one vial to the next.” A mother waves “frantically” to her son on a winter day, “but the cold wind is coming down the hill, pushing the words back into her mouth.” The same woman’s rented room is “a haunted box.” “Moment by moment, the city is becoming a machine of small insults and petty failures that can wear down even the strongest soul,” a soul like Miss Ella, who runs the tattered community center. Children in West B-more are “suckled on the nihilism of the corner[.]” DeAndre McCullough spends a night “smoking Phillie blunts until his eyeballs look like cherries in buttermilk,” while his father Gary’s running buddy overdoses in front of Gary’s mother, treating her “to a vile and frantic performance.” A thirteen-year-old mother lies in her hospital bed, “in absolute fear of what her body was doing to her.” Miss Ella could be a despondent Studs Terkel of the neighborhood, “shaking her head in dismay, as if truly astonished that the intimate knowledge of so many nightmares could count for so little.”
As Simon and Burns (correctly) see it, late capitalism has rendered socioeconomic groups that were already brutalized and marooned even more economically useless, save as bodies for the “ruthless economic engine” of drug markets and the counterinsurgent drug war. Their historical editorializing is a little repetitive, as is the case even with The Wire, to be honest, but it is rarely extrusive or annoying, because its moral anger is so compelling. From one passage:
Get it straight: they’re not just out here to sling and shoot drugs. That’s where it all began, to be sure, but thirty years has transformed the corner into something far more lethal and lasting than a simple marketplace. The men and women who live the corner life are redefining themselves at incredible cost, cultivating meaning in a world that has declared them irrelevant. […]
On Fayette Street today, the corner world is what’s left to serve up truth and power, money and meaning. It gives life and takes life. It measures all men as it mocks them. It feeds and devours multitudes in the same instant. Amid nothing, the corner is everything. […]
This is an existential crisis rooted not only in race–which the corner has slowly transcended–but in the unresolved disaster of the American rust-belt, in the slow, seismic shift that is shutting down the assembly lines, devaluing physical labor, and undercutting the union pay scale. Down on the corner, some of the walking wounded used to make steel, but Sparrow Point isn’t hiring the way it once did.
By the time Simon and Burns get around to likening the drug war to Vietnam, even an attentive reader might be tempted to skip ahead, only to be yoked again by the prose: “Listen to a big-city narcotics detective boasting about his arrest statistics, savoring them as tangible evidence of progress, and you might think of some starched Saigon briefing officer in an air-conditioned Quonset hut tallying up the daily body count.”
At these moments we sometimes get gold that was refashioned for The Wire, but hey, some great artists know how to self-plagiarize. For example, Bunny Colvin’s deservedly famous paper-bag address shows up as a pointed interjection from the authors, as does his piece about the irrelevance of high school to kids from this part of the world (1). Ditto for DeAngelo Barksdale’s extemporaneous lecture on how, in a rational world, narcotics could be sold peacefully as burgers.
The authors call their approach “stand-around-and-watch journalism.” It is structurally granular and recursive, rather than linear or vertical, using the four seasons to provide a basic shape and chapter names: the subjects’ lives don’t admit of much development or progress in any way that would be familiar to the majority of American readers, who (admit it) still love the Whig myth about historical Progress toward the best of all possible worlds. The corner is iteration upon iteration. A season passes, but the next looks much the same, and anyway the previous will be back.
Considering that two middle-class, middle-aged white guys wrote it, The Corner is a remarkably nuanced, intimate, humane piece of ethnography, one that should have sold a billion copies. Most definitely not a stooping Victorian treatise on The Poor, it is genuinely tender without condescension or sentiment. Simon and Burns aren’t wearing pith helmets, they are writing about men and women they got to know quite well, complex people in a terrible corner of the world.
The text’s epigraph is from Kafka: “You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.” [italics added]
Bummer alert: the book is sad. It begins and ends in misery, loss, existential strangulation, pointless brutality. You will also probably be angry upon finishing all 543 pages. You should be. The Corner was researched in 1992-93 and published in 1997. The Wire‘s final season concluded seven years ago, and in that same year the United States would congratulate itself on electing a black President. But, poorer than ever, in 2015 we are still going hard at the drug war. While you read this, someone got locked up after getting caught with a little heroin in a neighborhood where decent jobs vanished four decades ago. That happened. It is happening. We all live here.
1. Major Colvin is the fuckin’ best. He’s the character whose voice is closest to that of Simon and Burns.