The Corner is a long, challenging, depressing story about the plight of one drug-ravaged West Baltimore neighborhood. The 543-page nonfiction novel rarely strays from its central Fayette Street location, and only follows a handful of people, but authors David Simon and Edward Burns go so deep into the specifics of their subjects’ struggle with poverty and drug addiction that readers can perhaps be forgiven for putting the book down for weeks or months at a time. (I read the book on and off for nearly a year and a half before finishing it, and read several other books in the meantime). The book’s structure scarcely makes it more approachable; it is divided logically into four chronological sections, but then broken down into very lengthy chapters and sub-chapters that sometimes seem to begin and end at arbitrary points.
The Corner doesn’t qualify as “light reading” by any stretch of the imagination, but its difficult aspects stem from Simon and Burns’ honorable determination to give a voice to the voiceless and to put a human face on a part of the United States that has been almost entirely ignored by the rest of the world. Simon and Burns (who went on to be the head creative forces behind HBO’s The Wire) stand alongside Dickens and Chaplin as perhaps our only major chroniclers of poverty. Even if The Corner weren’t so eloquently written or so agonizingly powerful, it would still have journalistic value on a purely informational level.
But The Corner has much more to offer than simple statistics or abstract arguments about the plight of those involved in the drug trade. Simon and Burns center their study on the McCullough family, whose members are each struggling with the narcotics market in their own way. Patriarch Gary was once a promising renaissance man with an entrepreneurial spirit. But a series of harsh setbacks in Gary’s personal life led him into an endless spiral of addiction, and a revolving series of petty crimes to support it. Gary’s estranged wife Fran goes in and out of addiction throughout the book as well, the pressures of her environment frequently overwhelming her most sincere attempts to get clean. Fran and Gary’s fifteen-year-old son DeAndre is a small-time drug dealer whose difficulties fitting in to life outside of Fayette Street (his legit fast food job falls apart quickly) and easy access to drugs ultimately lead him to follow in his parent’s footsteps.
Simon and Burns follow the story of the McCulloughs in riveting, sometimes sickening detail. The first few pages of the novel include a map of the area where the novel takes place (as if this were The Lord of the Rings), which makes the story more intimate, vivid, and relatable than it otherwise would be. Following along with the map, the reader can easily understand where the recreation center that DeAndre and his friends play basketball is in relation to the corners where they sell drugs, or where the scrap yard that Gary steals materials from is in relation to the old home where he once showed such promise. It’s easy to imagine roughly where any of the novel’s major figures is and what they are doing even in sections of the story where they aren’t mentioned, and this sense of intimacy makes The Corner all the more moving and powerful. Emotional highpoints such as the (surprisingly life-affirming) section where DeAndre’s on-again/off-again girlfriend Tyreeka realizes that she has the strength to raise their newborn child, despite DeAndre’s unreliability and her own young age, succeed largely because readers will understand exactly where the characters are in relation to each other.
The Corner is not entirely without faults. Simon and Burns’ devotion to detail can be distracting, as when they report tirelessly about the specifics of the recreation center’s basketball program. And while the book goes into minute detail about the lives of the junkies and dealers, the other forces that effect the characters’ world (such as politics and the police force) are only dealt with in the abstract, which retroactively makes The Corner feel lacking compared to The Wire’s full-bodied look at the ways that circumstances conspire to keep the poor separated from the wealthy. Some of the novel’s essayistic passages contain its best pure prose, particularly the second chapter’s passionate yet well-reasoned argument for legalizing drugs, and a late-book screed that gives the lie to the idea that someone from Fayette Street could pull themselves up by the bootstraps and succeed in the “real world” if they only tried hard enough. But most of the sections that comment abstractly on poverty and drug laws feel like they could use the vividly personal touches that take up the rest of the book. Fortunately The Corner is mostly filled with powerful personal stories that honor the lives of the real people that they discuss while making larger, thought-provoking points about the many ways that we’ve all failed the less fortunate among us.