I’ve recently got through the book The Corner by David Simon and Ed Burns. At 628 pages it’s not a quick read, and the subject matter isn’t exactly light reading either. The book traces a year in the life of a family living on one of the most notorious drug trading precincts in the USA – a street in inner city Baltimore.
The main characters are Gary and Fran McCullough, a drug addicted and separated couple, and their oldest son, 15 year old DeAndre. There are also a whole host of minor characters who inhabit th drug infested neighbourhood of Fayette St and Monroe St in Baltimore.
Although Gary and Fran were locals to Fayette st, they had spent a number of years as a functional middle class family who owned a house and held down good jobs. However first Fran and then Gary became entangled in drug addiction, and their lives disintegrated.
During the year covered by the book Gary lives in an abandoned building, getting enough money to pay for his next hit by doing various illegal ‘capers’. Fran keeps a house for her two boys, DeAndre and DeRodd. But she is also hopelessly addicted and uses her boys welfare checks and anything else she can get to support her habit. At 15 years DeAndre works for the drug dealers on the street making easy money but is not yet completely caught up in their world.
Within the framework of the lives of these characters, the book examines many aspects of the drug problem in America. From the psychology of addiction, to the sociology and economics of the drug trade to the complete failure of all attempts at law enforcement.
As you can imagine there are many disturbing themes in the book, but two that stuck out to me are the many abortive attempts made by almost all drug addicts to escape from their addictions, and the way that children growing up in this kind of environment have so little opportunity to escape.
In the year covered by the book there is only one character who successfully leaves the world of drug addiction, and the 15 year old DeAndre and his friends go from being a bunch of boys to a gang of drug dealers and users.
The book doesn’t really offer any solutions to the drug problem, but it does try and show (successfully I think) that simply locking up kids who sell drugs will never do anything to improve the situation. Drug addiction and dealing are major social and economic problems, as well as personal ones.
If you want to examine some of the most tragic and destructive aspects of human nature, then The Corner is definitely a powerful book that I’d recommend. The only notes of hope come from the epilogue written 15 years after the original year. It turns out that Fran was able to overcome her addiction and move away from the corner. She continues to work helping addicts to overcome their addiction. Sadly DeAndre has struggled in and out of Jail for 15 years and Gary died of a drug overdose.
If you don’t have time to read the book, it has been made into a mini series, and is also the basis for the excellent (although full of swearing, violence and occasionally explicit sex) fictional TV series The Wire.