This weekend in things you never thought you’d read: the writer Lorrie Moore, best known for her sad short stories about sad people, delivers an essay in the latest New York Review of Books on HBO’s The Wire, based around two books about the show, The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television, edited by Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall, and The Wire: Truth Be Told by Rafael Alvarez. The series, always popular among white people, follows police officers, drug dealers, and journalists in Baltimore — to Moore, the “home of Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken, Babe Ruth, and Billie Holiday” — and finished its five season run in the spring of 2008, but has enjoyed a recent resurgence, at least in a scholarly sense, with the news that it would be used as a text in a Harvard seminar on urban inequality. The jokes about race and class write themselves.
It’s pretty much what you’d expect right from the outset: one part embarrassing, two parts great read.
Baltimore is not just a stand-in for Western civilization or globalized urban rot or the American inner city now given the cold federal shoulder in the folly-filled war on terror, though it is certainly all these things. Baltimore is also just plain itself, with a very specific cast of characters, dead and alive. Eminences are pointedly referenced in the course of the series: the camera passes over a sign to Babe Ruth’s birthplace, tightens on a Mencken quote sculpted into the office wall of The Baltimore Sun; “Poe” is not just street pronunciation for “poor” (to the delight of one of The Wire’s screenwriters) but implicitly printed onto one horror-story element of the script; a phrase of Lady Day wafts in as ambient recorded music in a narrative that is scoreless except when the credits are rolling or in the occasional end-of-season montage.
Moore, as usual, has an eye for detail and an unmistakable voice. For all that’s been written critically about the show, Moore’s essay has an air of discovery about it, like she’s the first to have ever seen or thought critically about The Wire. It’s compelling:
And in its admirable and unblinking look at a cursed people–America’s largely black and brown urban underclass–it is arguably biblical, Dantesque, and (Masterpiece Theatre be damned) more downstairs than upstairs.
Fans of either the show or the writer would do well to spend their evening here.