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The Great American Nightmare : LAND OF OPPORTUNITY: One Family's Quest for the American Dream in the Age of Crack, By William M. Adler (Atlantic Monthly Press: $22; 374 pp.)

June 25, 1995|Jervey Tervalon | Jervey Tervalon's novel "Understand This" was just released in paperback by Anchor Books

At dinner recently with two friends, the conversation turned to our respective, black middle-class families and how each had been battered by the rock cocaine epidemic: How after the initial shock of learning of a brother or sister's addiction, more nightmares began of having to watch their personality disintegrate under the influence of the drug and their family collapse, with the kids bearing the brunt of the catastrophe. We shared these stories, but something was missing; it was as though the tidal wave of crack cocaine had crashed on our lives and we were still too close to have perspective about it.

William M. Adler's fascinating, rigorously researched "Land of Opportunity" provides perspective galore, chronicling and picturing a dense crack-devastated urban landscape. Specifically, he tells the sharecroppers-to-drug-riches-to-inevitable-fall story of a family and two bothers, Billy Joe and Larry (Marlow) Chambers, who were extraordinary modern businessmen, tireless with the energy of those who knew abject poverty and never wanted to experience it again. We are shown in detail the social, historic and economic context that made the barren soil of Detroit so fruitful for the cocaine trade.

"Many of those left behind were increasingly isolated," Adler writes of the conditions that the Chambers took advantage of. "The automobile plants had closed or relocated, as had the great department stores. Neighborhood institutions such as recreation centers, small businesses, church schools--the bedrock of the community--crumbled. By the early eighties even entry-level dead-end jobs were nearly impossible to come by . . . "

Into this picture, starting in 1984, came the Chambers clan from poorest Arkansas. Over the next four years, the dissimilar brothers Billy Joe and Larry were destined to become the drug kingpins of the Motor City; in their best year they took in an estimated $55 million. Adler, a free-lance writer, is refreshing in not concealing that he has genuinely warmed to these two convicted felons. There is some risk in not reflexively loathing the brothers, but Adler's rapport--including extensive interviews with his protagonists--helps him penetrate the drug economy.

Larry, the older and more complicated brother, ran a ruthlessly tight ship but practiced yoga and vegetarianism in his spare hours. Billy Joe was a party animal who was more inclined to beat a girlfriend than bust heads in the interest of business. However, he was successful because, as Adler shows, he took to heart an associate's directive: "Take care of the product, and the product will take care of you." Billy Joe engendered loyalty by being extremely generous to his customers, providing oversized pieces of rock cocaine to ensure return business, and to his workers incentives such as automobiles for working long shifts. The brothers recruited workers mainly from their hometown, impossibly poor Marianna.

One can get caught up in the excitement of watching the Chambers clan make their rocket ship ride to success and their equally fast fall. But when I think of the damage to my own family, I wonder did Adler ever confront them with the suffering they caused?

An answer is implied early in the book when he describes how the kingpins were able to completely objectify their clients. Larry wanted his doormen to project warmth and to treat the customer, no matter how pathetic, with respect. As he explained to one doorman: 'When a crack-head comes to you and his woman is on his back, his babies don't have no Pampers, he hasn't eaten in two days, and he's about to spend his last five dollars on crack, you have to make him feel good about spending his money.' "

The Chambers brothers eventually pay the price for their greed and go to prison for long stretches, but it's hard to forget the viscious single-mindedness of their desperate methods. And, just as depressing: Once imprisoned, they are almost instantly replaced with even more ruthless dealers. And today cocaine is cheaper than ever.

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