This review originally appeared on the Barnes & Noble website in slightly different form.
In 1988, former Baltimore Sun Reporter David Simon spent a year as a "police intern" with Baltimore's homicide department to produce Homicide, a non-fiction account of the unit that became the basis for the TV series of the same name. In 1993, Simon took a similarly immersive approach to a related subject: the drug trade of Baltimore, a city where "slingers are manning more than a hundred open-air corners, serving up product as fast as they can get it off a southbound Metroliner."
For over a year, Simon, accompanied by a former police detective named Edward Burns, hung out on those corners; the resulting book, The Corner, is no less compelling than Simon's first, and yet it's unlikely that you'll ever see a version of it on TV. The heroes are few and the main characters would be lucky to last through the show's first season. Indeed, by the time Simon had gotten his book ready for publication earlier this year, many of the people whose lives he reported on were already dead; the book's Epilogue may as well have been titled Obituary. Dope fiends, apprentice drug slingers, people in the wrong place all the time - the corner life eventually claims them all.
In an Author's Note at the end of his book, Simon refers to James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as an "American ethnography," and it's useful to approach The Corner from the same perspective - with all the distance the latter word of the phrase implies. The region of West Baltimore that Simon documents can only be understood as a region unto itself, a complex ecosystem "as distinct and separate from the middle-class experience as can be imagined."
If you try to imagine it otherwise, if you apply your own privileged perspective to the experiences of the people whom Simon documents, you will end up frustrated. The book is filled with liars and con artists and petty criminals, and they consistently make decisions that further complicate their lives, and Simon records it all in unflinching detail: a heroin addict steals money from her drug-dealing, sixteen-year-old son as he sleeps; best friends cheat each other as a matter of course; a dope fiend desperate for his daily blast rips off a dealer's ground stash with the full knowledge that he will ultimately receive a vicious beating for this act. Is it likely that self-denial and discipline and perserverence might flourish in such an ecosystem? To survive on the corner, you have to become someone who can lie and cheat and steal; you have to become someone for whom guilt and pride have little meaning.
Simon sympathizes with his subjects without ennobling them; he shows how they are complicit in their victimization, but then puts that complicity into a greater context. "You know what I don't understand?" says Fran Boyd, one of the primary figures in the book. "People who have days like I just had and then don't get high." In another instance, Gary McCullough, Fran's ex-boyfriend exclaims, "I'm a drug addict…Who would choose that for their life?" Once an ambitious entrepreneur who held several jobs simultaneously, Gary sadly concludes, "I chose this." Fat Curt, another corner soldier whose exploits have left him with a ruined ankle, a liver that barely functions, and chronically swollen limbs, improbably exclaims: "I've had a good life…I did what I wanted to do and I can't say that if it came around again, I'd do too much different."
That Fat Curt, an old broken-down man at the age of 45, can talk like this suggests the ultimate tragedy of inner-city life: the drug trade is the primary social institution there, because it is the one institution that gives real meaning to the people who live there. "The corner has a place for them, every lost soul," Simon exclaims. "In this place only, they belong. In this place only, they know what they are, why they are, and what it is that they are supposed to do. Here, they almost matter."
And until someone creates an antidote to the corner that also provides that sense of meaning, Simon concludes, the drug trade will persist. Police won't stop it, prisons won't stop it, and neither will welfare, because none of these solutions addresses the question of how to reintegrate the corner's residents into a culture that has shown so little interest in them. Simon offers up no solution of his own; his decision not to do makes one think of something Baltimore's most famous newspaperman, H.L. Mencken, wrote in an essay called "The Cult of Hope." Addressing the subject of government reform, Mencken declared, "To tackle [problems] with a proof of [their] insolubility, or even with a colorable argument of it, is sound criticism; to tackle them with another solution that is quite as bad, or even worse, is to pick the pocket of one knocked down by an automobile." In The Corner, Simon recounts how the residents of West Baltimore have been having their pockets picked (and picking them themselves) for over 30 years now; pragmatic, well-versed in the complexity of the problem, he understands that at this point a solution, if one even exists, won't come in the form of a few easy pronouncements at the end of a book.
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