There was a time in mid-nineteen-nineties — before my energy started to flag — when I actively sought out books that I knew were on their way to becoming potentially significant feature films. This was especially common, weirdly enough, after I no longer had a public outlet to review films, meaning I had no particular impetus — no mandate, imposed or otherwise — to fill in the background. Freed from the burden of collegiate assigned text, I felt I had the time (though I was routinely working well over forty hours per week) and I maintained a hangover principle from my time as a film critic that if I were going to have an opinion, it should be an informed opinion. However, while I held tight to this conviction, I also had meager amounts of money, putting me at the mercy of the stocking opportunity and practices of local used bookstores. This was the convergence that put Richard Price’s Clockers in my hands.
I knew a little something about Richard Price at that point, entirely from his gutty screenplays for Sea of Love, the 1992 remake of Night and the City, and Mad Dog and Glory. His novel Clockers, a thick brick of a book, was met with widespread acclaim, but the 1992 tome brightened its blip on my radar when Spike Lee was announced as the director who’d helm the adaptation. Besides the fact that Lee was still a formidable cinematic presence at the time, the pending film was fascinating and significant as the filmmaker’s first real attempt at interpreting someone else’s creation. Even Malcolm X, officially based on the fiery activist’s autobiography co-written with Alex Haley, seemed to well up straight from Lee’s very soul. Clockers was going to be different. It was going to require Lee, at least to a degree, to speak in someone else’s voice.
And it was a helluva voice. The novel Clockers is fierce and masterful, alternating between police detective Rocco Klein and street corner drug dealer Ronald “Strike” Dunham as a bleak Jersey City neighborhood reels from the murder of another local cocaine peddler. Unlike other authors with a skill for immersing their works in seedy criminal activity, Price comes at the story with a distinctively empathetic approach. He relates the particulars of the story with pinpoint precision, keeping the shifting allegiances and swirl of parceled-out revelations clear. The procedural tracking through the plot is necessary but hardly the point. Instead, price takes an notably humanistic approach, coming at his characters with an almost sociological attentiveness. While there’s an undeniable element of whodunit to the story, Price is more invested in explicating just how a community’s wounds can roil and blister to the point where extreme violent choices can seem like reasonable, if unfortunate, acts of self-defense.
Lee does his best with the film version, but Price’s work is ultimately too emotionally rich and intellectually complex to fairly condense into a couple hours worth of celluloid. Even though the author has had plenty of his own direct experience with film endeavors (included, to be clear, a co-screenwriting credit on Clockers), he belongs on the page, which better serves his propensity for deep dive considerations of all the contradictions that fuel the most self-destructive impulses that crackle through modern life. I haven’t followed him with the greatest of devotion, but every time I’ve opened one of his books I’ve found the same smart, sound, thoughtful worldview. No matter how I got to him the first time, I’m grateful I did.
—Doris Kearns Goodwin