Earlier this year I reviewed the brilliant Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets which detailed a year in the life of the Baltimore Homicide Department. And now, having missed the actual tenth anniversary date of The Wire’s first airing in the US (June 2 2002, (thanks Tom Robinson for that)) it seems totally appropriate to have a look at the sister book which chronicles the people living and surviving in the urban slums of Baltimore city circa 1993.
The age of the book though, makes no difference to what is a startling and extremely relevant subject, shockingly despite the book being first published in 1997 a lot of the issues contained within are still endemic today.
The cover quote saying this book is ‘a devastating portrait’ and that isn’t the half of it. For those who have seen The Wire, then this is season 4 but with only a thin sliver of humour. For everyone else who hasn’t watched one of the most powerful and true to life dramas ever produced, I shall give a brief description of what this book deals with.
The treatise is set around some of the areas notorious open air drugs markets. The narcotics culture has pervaded all over the district and we are introduced to the many diverse individuals who coexist together, everyone from addicts, dealers, the children growing up seeing all the money associated with drugs and community workers.
The portrait of each individual really made me feel close to them, and I was really rooting for everyone to come good throughout, of course with a book like this, there is plenty of adversity and affliction and not nearly as many happy endings as I hoped for. But this is real life, none of that Disney happy endings for everyone nonsense, it doesn’t happen and people really should stop kidding themselves that it does.
Some of the people, (most of the names haven’t been changed, interestingly) who appear in this book, have me in mind of the tragic characters that Dickens was so successful in creating in all their intense sadness and hopelessness. To give more depth to each individual, extensive interviews were carried out by the authors over three years chronicling their thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams etc.
As you may have guessed this isn’t the lightest read you will ever come across, and it is certainly more heavy going than Homicide was, yet it is never less than compelling,and when finished it is a book to be endlessly refered too and contemplated. The subject matter and challenge of the book are a small price to pay though for the understanding that can be gleaned about the social iniquity of one of the most powerful countries in the world.
throughout the text are interfused the feelings of anger, desolation, betrayal and bewilderment. People here feel dismissed and misunderstood as the world around them goes to hell. It also includes the best insight into the young people brought up in the world of drugs that I have ever read. By humanizing the drugs trade, it enables a clearer understanding of so called ‘gangster children’ and how they view themselves and in turn how the outside world views them. It certainly is an opinion changer.
However it is not all grim reading, there are success stories, there is community spirit (although some of the ‘gang society’ is run on illogical or paradoxical rules, but still it exists) and I would even venture that the word hope can also be used. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to everyone, for the sheer determinedness of the people whose lives are chronicled within, it may well change your opinion and will certainly shock but will also teach you something about how you view life and your fellow human beings.
Politicians everywhere should be reading this devastating indictment of the decline of neighbourhood and community, perhaps it would explain a lot about social context, how the drug dependent survive, how they can be helped and that most importantly without a radical overhaul of a system which fails so many there will only be the gradual deterioration of family values, morals and social degradation in the populace at large.,
This reader never felt that his feelings were being manipulated anywhere in the book, to write a balanced book that doesn’t preach one way or the other is impressive but the authors decided on a pact of not interfering, like wildlife documentors, they didn’t assist anyone, which must have been tough, especially when a certain person wanted to get clean and asked for a lift to the rehab centre because of the temptations of walking down the block and be tempted with all the drugs on the way was too much. Was it callous to refuse? Maybe but the only way to create the proper portrait they were aiming for, you could argue, is not to get involved.