I was (exceptionally) working in (and for) my garden when my daughter shouted down from her window that John Nash had just died. I thus completed my tree trimming and went to check about this sad item of news. What I read made the news even sadder as he and his wife had died in a taxi crash in New Jersey, apparently for not wearing seat-belts, a strategy you would think far from minimax… Since Nash was in Norway a few days earlier to receive the 2015 Abel Prize, it may even be that the couple was on its way home back from the airport. A senseless death for a Beautiful Mind.
Archive for New Jersey
Throughout my recent trip to Canada, I read bits and pieces of Clockers by Richard Price and I finished reading it last Sunday. It is an impressive piece of literature and I am surprised I was not aware of its existence until amazon.com suggested it to me (as I was checking for recent books by another Richard, Richard Morgan!). Guessing from the summary it could be of interest and from comments it was sort of a classic, I ordered it more or less on a whim (given a comfortable balance on my amazon.com account, thanks to ‘Og’s readers!) It took me a few pages to realise the plot was deeply set in the 1990’s, not only because this was the high of the crack epidemics, but also since the characters (drug dealers and policemen) therein are all using beepers, instead of cellphones, and street phone booths).
“It’s like a math problem. Juan got whacked at point X, he drove away losing blood at the rate of a pint every ninety seconds. He was driving forty-five miles an hour and he bought the farm two miles inside the tunnel (…) So for ten points, [who] in what New Jersey town did Juan?” Clockers (p.272)
The plot of Clockers is vaguely a detective story as an aging and depressed homicide officer, Rosso, hunts the murderer of a drug dealer, being convinced from the start that the self-declared murderer Victor did not do it. In parallel, and somewhat more closely, the book follows the miserable plight and thoughts and desires of Victor’s brother, Strike, who is head of a local crack dealing network, under the domination of the charismatic and berserk Rodney Little… But the resolution of the crime matters very little, much less than the exposure of the deadly economics of the drug traffic in inner cities (years before Freakonomics!), of the constant fight of single mothers to bring food and structure to their dysfunctional families, to the widespread recourse to moonlighting, and above all to the almost physical impossibility to escape one’s environment (even for smart and decent kids like Victor and, paradoxically enough, the drug-dealing Strike) by lack of prospect and exposure to anything or anywhere else, as well as social pressure, early pregnancies and gang-related micro-partitioning of cities.
When I mentioned Clockers to Andrew, he told me that he also liked it very much but that the characters were not quite “real”. I somewhat agree in that, while the economics, the sociology and the practice of drug-dealing sound very accurately reproduced (for all I know!), the characters are more caricaturesque or picturesque than natural. The stomach disease of Strike sounds too much like an allegory of both his schizophrenic split between running the drug trade and looking for a definitive quit, while the sacrifice of his brother makes little sense, except as a form either of suicide or of escape from an environment he can no longer stand. What is most surprising is that Richard Price (just like Michael Crichton) is a practised screenwriter (who collaborated to Spike Lee’s 1995 Clockers). So he knows how to run an efficient story with convincing characters and plot(s). Hence my little theory of a picaresque novel… (Here is Jim Shepard’s enthusiastic review of Clockers. With the definitely accurate title of “Sympathy for the dealer”.)
I had never heard about Junot Díaz or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao before A. & C. brought it to me as an hospital present. I should have, if only because it got the Pullitzer Prize (among other awards). The story is a family saga of a Dominican family, between the Dominican Republic (DR) and New Jersey where the central character Belicia Cabral de Léon emigrated. Oscar (nicknamed Wao) is her overweight son, very much into science-fiction and fantasy (from collecting cards to writing five novels) and who has indeed a brief (if definitely not wondrous) life. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a complex tale of doom (fukù) and bad-luck, of ill-fated attractions and constantly wrong choices, with in the background the dark and lengthy era of the dictator Trujillo, and the still uncertain democracy in the DR. I liked very much the story, told from several characters’ perspectives, and the style as well, mixing some Spanish words with the mostly English text (which means I had to guess some sentences from my inexistent Spanish and to check for frequent words like cuero), with constant references to nerdy culture. The book time-line corresponds to the lives of Oscar and Beli and it is only towards the end that the reader finally understands how closely intertwined with Trujillo it was… (The book also includes a lot of [definitely useful] footnotes about the history of the DR from the 1930’s till the end of the dictature.) Besides the doomed (or cursed) family theme and a rather unsurprising entry into college nerdy subculture, I think The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao achieves a convincing description of (some) emigrants’ lifes, torn between two countries and somehow trapped by the “old country” culture to the point of dying from it.