The Possessed

Crackhouse: Notes from the End of the Line

by Terry Williams
Addison-Wesley, 156 pp., $17.95

Clockers

by Richard Price
Houghton Mifflin, 599 pp., $22.95

The drugs that people take for non-medicinal reasons do more than numb pain or enhance pleasure or induce entertaining perceptual distortions. They are a weapon against the void. In his book on opium, Jean Cocteau wrote that every human activity “takes place in an express train hurtling toward death.” To take drugs, he proposed, is to get off that train. The potent illusion that drugs provide is called upon when the more commonplace illusions fail, and especially when life appears as nothing more than the conduit between birth and death. Drugs populate the empty landscape, supply the missing heaven, extend the movie into the third dimension. Drugs impose their own structure—customs and language, goals and priorities, rewards and punishments—on lives in which all belief has collapsed, and with it conventional structures.

The alternate world that drugs create is only made more concrete and urgent by the fact of their illegality. Users, suppliers, and agents of the law become locked into an unbreakable circular mechanism. Although individual users can, with great effort, free themselves from the cycle, the social causes are too profound for there to be any widespread solution short of social upheaval; the results, meanwhile, are all too apparent. The popular media and the popular mind—including that of the government—can do nothing more with this unbearable truth than to demonize it or turn it into an abstraction.

Terry Williams’s Crackhouse and Richard Price’s Clockers each examine different segments of the phenomenon, and although their methods are nominally different—the former is a sociological study, the latter a novel—the two works complement each other. Both are primarily concerned with the human beings caught in this treadmill, and as a consequence both are at war with reductive clichés, sensationalism, preaching, bureaucratic triage, vast solutions, moral grandstanding, willful ignorance, and all the other affronts to truth.

Terry Williams, an anthropologist, spent more than four years investigating crackhouses, hanging out, listening, meeting new people who led him to other houses, and eventually settled on one particular situation for concentrated study. This situation could be defined either as a house—an apartment rented exclusively for the ingestion of cocaine base and the activities accessory to such ingestion—or as a family, the group of people who lived there more or less consistently and devoted their lives to the pursuit of the high. The family in this instance was a particularly heterogeneous crowd, according only slightly with the popular image of pipeheads. In charge of the household, by virtue of being the leaseholder, was “Headache,” a man in his late forties born in Paris of Czechoslovakian Jewish stock who had formerly been a high-echelon salesman in the textile trade. His companion was “Joan,” two decades younger, an intelligent and rather imperious woman from a West Indian family. Others included “Venus,” who had left the Dominican Republic to become a professional baseball player but whose career had been cut short by a car accident; “Shayna,” a nineteen-year-old mother; “T …

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