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LIFE ON BALTIMORE'S MEAN STREETS BECOMES A LESSON IN NEIGHBORS

THE CORNER:
A Year in the Life of an
Inner-City Neighborhood
By David Simon and Edward Burns
Broadway Books
543 pages, $27.50

Meet Gary McCullough. He lived the American dream -- successful businessman, investment properties, a Benz in the driveway. Then crack and heroin entered his life. Now he sleeps on a urine-stained mattress in the basement of his parents' house.

Meet George Epps. He runs a shooting gallery, a house where addicts congregate to take their drugs and share their highs. When he's not tending to his flock, Epps teaches art to youngsters at the neighborhood rec center.

Meet Ella Thompson, Miss Ella. You'll find her at the recreation center, a refuge from the world outside, where she offers board games and sports as a substitute for the drugs and violence that dominate the streets.

All three live in West Baltimore, but they could just as well live in Buffalo or any American inner-city neighborhood where the drug culture prevails. In "The Corner," David Simon and Edward Burns immerse themselves in the lives that inhabit Fayette and Monroe in Baltimore. They write exquisitely about the depressive lifestyles, the failures and tragedies, the infrequent joys and the even more infrequent successes.

Simon, a free-lance journalist, writes for NBC's "Homicide," a series based on his 1991 book, which charted a year of homicides in Baltimore. His co-author, Edward Burns, retired after a 20-year career in the Baltimore Police Department, much of it spent investigating drug dealing in the neighborhood he now chronicles.

Together they provide a rare, inside glimpse of drug dependency, drug mayhem and drug culture. Like artists with words, they paint scene after scene with deft strokes of the language. For instance, describing the rec center:

An old, twisted blackboard with no rim, a swing set, monkey bars, and a sliding board with a mean metallic bite at the bottom are the archaeological remnants that suggest a playground. On the northern edge of the lot squats a single-story building, its eyeless gray facade capped with a ribbon of dull red paint. Small and ugly and brooding, the thing was given life by an architect who might have learned his craft on the Maginot Line, so closely does it resemble a wartime bunker.

It is with that kind of detail that "The Corner" invades the daily happenings of its inhabitants: McCullough, who gave up a college education to return home and marry the woman he impregnated before he left for school. Fran Boyd, his wife. Attached to the neighborhood, she refused to move to the suburbs and slowly, inextricably, drew her husband into the drug culture. DeAndre, their son, now 15. "The Corner" charts the inner turmoil he endures in trying to decide whether to attend school or deal drugs, a decision made all the more difficult by a mother who occasionally relies on him for her "blast" of drugs or steals his drug profits to feed her habit.

Others weave their way into the story -- the dealers, the touts, the slingers, the fiends, all linked by the common bond of cocaine and heroin. Even those who have somehow managed to escape the drugs, if not the neighborhood, play major roles -- Miss Ella, the middle-aged grandmother who forces teen-age gang members to shed their expensive high-tops at the door as the price of admission to a rec center dance; Rose Davis, the school principal who compassionately forgets almost any transgression, realizing that even two or three days a week in school means precious hours away from the corner.

It is the vividness of the telling that makes "The Corner" so compelling. Witness a scene at the shooting gallery, junkie Rita Hale, the unparalleled drug administrator, presiding:

"What's working for you?" Rita asks, consulting with the patients as every good doctor does, asking them how they're getting off lately and where the blood still flows. She probes amid old graveyards of tracks and scabs, feeling her way through the terrain like a dowser hunting water. And then, at last, she's in and they're on, the pinkish cloud rising into the syringe as bottom-line proof.

Simon and Burns spent a year with the corner's inhabitants to gather the fodder for their book. They were granted such intimate access to their subjects that their work reads like a novel instead of the superbly researched non-fiction accomplishment it is. Its words reverberate with the same telling impact that has made Simon's television work so popular. At times, in fact, "The Corner" cries out not to be believed. Can life be this oppressive? Are drugs that pervasive?

If it is to be faulted in any regard, "The Corner" too often meanders into moralizing essays that outline the import of what has just been read. Better to allow the exploits of Gary McCullough, the heroics of Ella Thompson and the pathos of George Epps do the moralizing. With writing as powerful as this, no exclamation point, no matter how well-intentioned, was needed.