Tuesday, 14 April 2009

David Simon and Ed Burns - The Corner (Canongate 2009)

Have you seen the Wire? Oh you really should. It’s so realistic and it’s so moving and it’s so brutal and it’s so interesting and it’s so well thought-out and it’s so real about American politics and it’s so a dissection of the death of working class in American society and what do you mean you haven’t seen it yet and I don’t want to ruin it for you but McNulty and Bunk and Freamon and Daniels... ooooh, I won’t ruin it for you. I wish I was like you- I wish I hadn’t seen it so I could start watching it for the first time ever. Seriously, have you seen it?

And thus middle class dinner parties across the country continue. Gradually, they will move on to Spotify and the new Bat for Lashes album and when they first originally read the Watchmen and The Apprentice. Don’t get me wrong- I love all these things. I’ve been at these dinner parties. I’ve been that annoying zealot. Which is why, despite a slight over-Wire-ing of current popular culture, I still think you need to read ‘The Corner’, Canongate’s latest David Simon reprint, about a year on the drug corners where Simon and real-life inspiration for McNulty/Sgt Mellor from the Wire, Ed Burns, witness the lives of the down and out and desperate and those who feed their hunger. This is the book that inspired the mini-series that inspired The Wire. And it’s good... fucking good. Fa’real. Mos’def.

True to the hyper-realism of the show, we get an immersive experience into the corners. An author’s note tells us that either Simon or Burns or both witnessed 80% of what they portray, and the other 20% is down to memory and circumstance and anecdote. But 80% of a 700 page book being witnessed fa’real is unprecedented access, especially for two suspicious white ‘suits’ in a predominantly black neighbourhood. The trust and access is impressive testament to their investigative journalism and ability to recount such tales with clarity and poignance. No notebooks, no tape recorders, just eyes, ears and the knowledge of where to find a good story. Firstly, let’s get the nerdy facts and tidbits out of the way. Firstly, Denise Wise- Cutty from the Cut- was a real man, a real assassin and dangerous to boot. Whether he followed a path to redemption isn’t mentioned. Shamrock is just one of a list of drug dealer street names ripped out for usage in The Wire. It’s amazing to see how much is based on real life. Bravo. Simon and Burns choose to follow the McCullough family through a year, watching their slide into the game, how the system fails youngest son DeAndre, drawn to the corner and never kept interested in school, how real life beats once successful Gary, and how the game always be the game for Fran.

DeAndre is barely 15 and already an experienced hustler and businessman. He provides for his family because he has to but also because he enjoys the street level respect he gets. He helps run the CMB gang, a bunch of similarly-aged runts as they own their corner and never fail to be drawn away from its allure, through direct changes in the game, through territorial disputes and truant officers and the police and weeks of inferior/sparse product. They own their corner and the corner always be the corner. Simon and Burns build up the economy of the street-level dealers here, showing their outgoings and incomes, how they earn more money than they have the sense to spend and always have that provision for their families as their main drive. What else you gonna do? School is lost to them. Ms Ella tries with her youth club but there are no funds. In the meantime, the corner is their absent father, providing them excitement, thrills, the prospect of danger and man-making and the attentions of the girls who know who’s holding the most money.

Gary was always doomed to failure, the middle child in a run of 13 siblings. His parents are simple folk. His dad still drives a cab as his pension can’t support their house still in the neighbourhood and the constant bail-outs of his more disappointing children, drawn to the corner and absolved as family obligation. Gary was successful. Gary went to college but was drawn back home by Fran’s pregnancy with DeAndre. He is our Bubbles. He is eventually lost to addiction and we watch painfully as he gets involved in scrapes and desperate capers, living hand-to-vein, sometimes bribing or stealing from his parents for his next fix. It’s pure bottom-level desperation and it’s heart-breaking. Through him we meet the junkies and addicts, the scammers and the row house shooting gallery regulars and their helpers, like Rita, a junkie nurse who can find a vein on you anywhere and will shoot you up if you share your stash.

Fran never wanted to be pregnant. But now she has two sons, is fiercely protective but ultimately for her own needs. She will scam, lie, cheat and steal to get her fix and her way and to manipulate everything to her advantage. She is our guide to the touts and runners, the extra hands for the dealing crews.

And what gets you is, these are all real people. Sure they become blueprints for TV’s more colourful characters, but they are free of stereotype, painted so vividly and tinged with so much sadness you can’t believe this is happening now, in a country as world-beating as America. It’s a brutal, honest and beautiful piece of work that paints a picture of one of the worst drug-neighbourhoods in America, one where hope is all but gone and all roads point to a corner.


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