Clockers versus The Wire by Steve Finbow

I don’t have a television. That’s not a boast or a way around paying the license. I just don’t have one. Spend a year in Japan and you’ll come away loathing your sixteen-foot by eight-foot flat-screen. Japanese television shows are dreadful – like Swapshop and Tiswas for adults. But I do have a MacBook, and on it I watch DVDs. The latest – after The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – is The Wire.

I’m one episode away from the conclusion to season two (don’t tell me, don’t tell me) and while watching season one I was reading Richard Price’s Clockers (not at the same time – I mean, I was reading when I wasn’t watching – oh, you figure it out). Pure coincidence. And there are similarities. The Wire’s D’Angelo Barksdale conducts his drug business in the low rises from a sofa, Ronald Dunham (Strike) deals from a bench under the towers. Buddha Hat is similar to Omar Little. Dempsy, New Jersey, could be Baltimore.

Both The Wire and Clockers are neo-realist, tough, and, like McNulty and Rocco Klein, they grab you by the balls and twist. Richard Price wrote episodes of The Wire for seasons three and four, joining other crime writers such as George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and Rafael Alvarez, all of whom write about inner-city neighbourhoods and are as gritty and hard-boiled as writers get.

But which did I prefer? The Wire is up there with the best – The Sopranos, Buffy, Twin Peaks – it’s violent, funny, and has well-crafted characters. Clockers is Price’s best work – as involved as any DeLillo, well written, driven. And here’s my problem. The inherent passivity of television, of cinema (don’t get me started), means I cannot fully involve myself. I have to stand back, watch; the implied voyeurism makes it impossible for me to enjoy the thing for the thing itself. I’m always looking for stage props, for lighting, the reality is never real enough, it can’t be.

Yet in the novel, I slip easily between the sheets, go down on the characters, insert my inky digits into the folds, the crevices, come up with a little grime under my nails, a little blood, a smidgen of shit, a dusting of frass. I’m gay for Rocco Klein but can’t get it out of my head that Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty) is English. I can taste the Yoo-hoo Strike swigs from but don’t understand why Kima Greggs insists on wearing her hair up.

Both The Wire and Clockers are post-Zolaesque (that’s Émile not Gianfranco) studies of urban desolation, crime, and corruption – both are true-to-life portrayals of human weakness, bravery, greed, and stupidity; but I prefer the word to the view, the book to the DVD. Television, the cinema, the theatre are passive art forms; the novel, the short story, the poem are active… I wear my red handkerchief in my left hip pocket. Where do you wear yours?


Finbow on Burroughs

Part one:

Off the plane after a seven-hour flight, through passport control, I’m going to be late. I sprint through customs. I’m booked on a coach from Manchester airport to Liverpool, there will not be another for three hours, and I don’t have enough money to catch a train. My ticket is for the 6:15. Uniform, eyes of a retarded sheep, outstretched arm, raised hand, wrist back, palm facing out. I don’t need this. I really do not need this.
“Woah, son,” he says.
“Where have you come from?”
I want to say my mother’s cottage-cheese womb, the voodoo-enflamed loins of my father, the bulbous testicles of a Venusian sea-dragon. I bite my tongue and taste the stale airline food, luke-warm beer, the acid zest of my impatience.
“New York,” I say.
I am wearing black-and-white Converse high tops, ragged and patched Levis, a faded and barely-holding-itself-together Ramones T-shirt, my hair cropped except for a Tintin-like coif.
“Do I look like I’ve been to New York on fucking business, you cunt?” I think.
“No. Research,” I say.
“Oh, research,” he says, as if it is some rare and exotic animal.
“Yeah,” I say. “Look, my coach is due in 10 minutes.”
“Really? Open it up,” he says, pointing to my bag.
“Bollocks,” I think.
A drab olive holdall, rusted rosettes of old punk badges – Patti Smith, The Overcoat, The Shirts, Subway Sect, the Slits – scab the tatty canvas, making the bag appear scrofulous, diseased. I look at the customs man and he looks back at me. I don’t want to do this. I want to get on the coach, press my head against the cool window, and sleep all the way home. I fumble with the buckles, stabbing my finger in the process. Eventually, I open it, pull the flap over, and expose the contents.
“I’ve been doing research at Columbia University,” I say as an excuse for what he will find on top of my fusty clothes.
“………” he says.
“Yeah, at the Butler Library,” I say.
“……….” he says. He moves his hands within my holdall as if performing a caesarean section.
“You see, these books are part of my research on William Burroughs,” I say, sweat trickling down the sides of my face, dripping off my jaw onto my collarbone where it gathers in small pools.
“……….” he says, extracting something.
“For my PhD,” I say, as I look down at a book he lays out on the table as if it is a brick of Semtex. Titled Junkie, published by the New English Library in 1969, this particular edition’s cover depicts, on a lurid red background, a man’s arm, fingers furled, an oversized hypodermic syringe plunging into the purple tributary of an Amazonian delta of raised veins. I look at the customs man and he looks back at me. Continue reading