Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Saddest book ever: The Corner by David Simon

I'm about two-thirds through The Corner by David Simon (writer from the show The Wire) and Edward Burns. It chronicles a year in a Baltimore neighborhood dominated by the drug trade. It's written as a nonfiction novel.

It's the saddest, scariest book I've ever read. Difficult to read, difficult to put down. It shows the utter failure of the drug war and how it has warped and wasted lives. The centerfold includes real photos of the main characters. I was shocked, by then, to see such photos. That people would let themselves be interviewed to the extent required to describe them this way, and then allow photos of themselves in the book...I can hardly imagine it. If someone interviewed me enough to lay out all my flaws in such detail, I don't think I'd be willing to be photographed. I think I'd pull a Sean Penn.

The newest concept for me was the idea of the drug corner as an economic engine of devastation, always there waiting to suck people in. The idea of being dirt poor, not able to count on food or clothes, and knowing you could go out on the corner and sell drugs and live large at any moment, makes the choice to deal drugs comprehensible.

The people are fascinating and the concept for the book is amazing. It covers a whole year in the life of a neighborhood. It's difficult to imagine the work involved to be able to write with authority from each character's point of view. Simon's authorial voice never wavers as he talks about an addict mother's faltering attempts to get into a treatment program, and brutally chronicles how she'll probably fail. He constantly take the specific people he's documenting and relates them to the larger whole, talking about how addicts make plans for escape which are linear and fragile, broken when any link in the chain fails.

And after I read the book I kind of want to go find a corner and cry.

The best thing about the book is the way it makes an alien environment real. It makes me wary of trying to come up with an solutions, as a suburban white guy far away. Unfortunately, too much of the data about the drug war that I'm seeing lately indicates that it can't be won and the battle is devastating. And abandoning it seems politically impossible. Nothing about this book raises hope, not so far. But at the same time, it's an incredible read.

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