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Seeing Both Sides : 'Clockers' puts Richard Price at the heart of today's love affair with inner cities. He hopes his tale about a black drug dealer and a white cop can bridge the gap between the races.

June 15, 1992|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cops are pumped up and screaming and it's a million degrees outside, but when they fly through the door, the crackheads freeze. The last one in is a skinny guy who's not even wearing a bulletproof vest--novelist Richard Price.

"I have my notebook out like a crucifix," says Price, demonstrating his faith in the almighty written word. Price is talking fast and he's teetering on the edge of a chair in a place as far removed from the Jersey City projects he's talking about as any place can get--his room at the elegant Four Seasons Hotel.

Price, a screenwriter with "Sea of Love" and the Oscar-nominated "The Color of Money" to his credit, is talking about his three-year run with the cops, drug dealers and denizens of the urban projects. Last stop was his big new novel, "Clockers."

"These cops are so enraged and they're so fed up and they're looking at this crowd all looking at them, and the cop that leads this raid sees this woman, she's pregnant, big belly, and he wasn't even aware he was doing this. He took a look at this woman's stomach and went 'phoo,' " says Price, 42, exhaling in disgust.

"Like, here comes another one. And the woman caught the look, and it was like this cop punched her in the face. She understood the subtitles under that look: 'I've gotta arrest this one in 10 years too.' It's like, 'You just accused my fetus of being a future criminal.' "

Price, who mined his youth in the Bronx projects to vault to literary fame with "The Wanderers" 18 years ago, is back on the gritty beat. "Clockers," his acclaimed take on the "roiling caldron of survival" that is ghetto life, places him flush in the center of the recent pop-culture romance with the inner cities.

But much of the cinematic work that has already come out has tended toward hyperbole that relegates the opposing side to cartoon-ish figures. And "Clockers"--which is also marching toward the screen with Price as screenwriter--is unusual in that it tells its tale from two fully developed viewpoints--the black street hustlers and the largely white, suburban agents of the middle class: the police.

Each chapter alternates between the perspective of two protagonists--Strike, a crack dealer casting for respect in a world where drugs are power, and Rocco Klein, a detective on a mission to vindicate Strike's brother, a man he believes is wrongly accused of murder. "Clockers"--which takes its name from a street term for drug dealers--holds up the two adversaries' similarities to the light; Price believes in the healing role of fiction.

"What's been happening in this country between the races is just a lot of finger-pointing. One side yells out, 'The Central Park jogger!' The other side yells out, 'Rodney King!' The other side yells out, 'The guy that was pulled from the truck!' It's like everyone's own victims are the true victims, and the other guy's victims are their own damn fault, and it's deteriorated into this big hideous 'Donahue' show of acrimony. . . .

"The whole premise I'm going in there with is, somebody's got to step across the gap and empathize enough with the other side."

"Clockers" might be the biggest, glossiest fiction coming out on the inner city. The Chicago Tribune hailed it as "this year's most pertinent and timely novel," Time called it "remarkable" and "one of the toughest and grittiest novels of the past few years," and the New York Times called it "bold and powerful."

And Universal's whopping $1.9-million purchase of screen rights propelled Price into the rarefied ranks of writers like Joe Eszterhas, who earned a record-setting $3 million for Carolco's "Basic Instinct" script, and Michael Crichton, who made $2 million from Universal for bestseller "Jurassic Park."

Although the novel "Clockers" is more steeped in ambiguity than your average Hollywood product, it's nonetheless tapping a rich vein of commercial potential--street culture--which has become more compelling to mainstream audiences as problems have spiraled in the inner cities. Authors like Price, who have invested years in such writing projects, are typically cynical about their sudden popularity.

"Now because of Rodney King, everybody is going, 'This is going to be the decade of riots,' and all of a sudden everybody's concerned," Price says. "But they're not. Read that as scared. People's hearts are people's hearts. They don't want to know unless they have to know because it's about to impinge on them."

Indeed, Leon Bing, author of "Do or Die," a book about L.A. gangs, says she couldn't even find a forum for her forays into gang territory in the mid-'80s.

"Not until Karen Toshima was killed in Westwood standing outside a theater, waiting to see a movie--she took a bullet to the head and died in 1988--until that happened, no one had any interest at all," says Bing, who recently canceled a paperback book tour to avoid capitalizing on the L.A. riots.

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