In this magnificent, addictively readable book David Simon and Ed Burns take the time to document the lives of a small group of drug addicts and dealers living in a desolate Baltimore neighbourhood. In doing so they have created an important and moving book, and given a human face to a group of impoverished, forgotten people with almost no prospects, destined otherwise to become nothing more than anonymous statistics. It's a worthy enough project, but the authors have created a work that is not only a document and a testament to a time, place and social ill, but a slick and entertaining book in its own right.
The pace of the book is slower, and The Corner is less compelling than Simon's masterful "Homicide," lacking as it does the "whodunnit" elements, but this book is no less worthy of praise.
Simon and Burns strike a near-perfect balance here between the minutiae of the lives of the addicts and their families - the petty crime, the designer clothes, the packages, the basketball games - and the wider subjects which explore how and why this forgotten underclass came to be - the "war on drugs," immigration, unemployment and the mentality and economy of the drug trade. It's a huge book at over 550 pages long, but it is never overly weighty or preachy. Simon and Burns view their subject from all angles, illuminating it in three dimensions, moving in the space of a page from a close up of a desperate junkie tearing copper piping from a basement, to an authoratitive exploration of the migration of the Black population from Carolina and Virginia, the racial tensions that arose and the impact of WW2 on the poor communities of Baltimore. With several years of research under their belts, most of it on the corner that gives the book its title, the authors can be trusted completely.
Anyone who has enjoyed The Wire, The Corner or Homicide will find plenty to recognise and enjoy. As with other Simon projects you cannot help but feel for almost all the characters here, usually despite their actions. These are human beings, and there isn't an easy judgement or caricature in sight. A feeling of helplessness permeates all the lives presented here as one sad generation retreads the steps of the last, and the somewhat depressing afterword offers little evidence of any of the youngsters in the book managing to climb free of their surroundings. This is reality. The story of Gary McCullough, the contradictory but immensely likeable standout of all those featured here, is particularly heartbreaking.
Simon and Burns don't have the answers but they've done more than most to blow open the pain and hoplessness of the drug trade and the impact it has on everyone it touches. This is an important, informative and enjoyable book that deserves to be widely read, and after completing both Homicide and The Corner I would now consider anything written by Simon to be a must read. His name is a byword for honesty, bravery and writing of the highest calibre. Lets hope another book is somewhere on the horizon.