People are occasionally surprised, David Simon says, to find that he still lives in Baltimore, the city that is the lead character in his epic television series The Wire. They assume that the man behind all those box sets would have found himself a luxury penthouse in Los Angeles, or Manhattan at least, far from the devastated neighborhoods his show portrays. But on a cold, bright morning at the headquarters of his production company in downtown Baltimore, he seems as enmeshed as ever in the life of the city — bemoaning the latest antics of the police department and the failure of the Baltimore Sun, his former employer, to cover them. “If I want to find out what’s going on in this city, I’ve got to go to a fucking bar and talk to a police lieutenant and take notes on a cocktail napkin,” he says. Simon is 48, bald and stocky, and prone to grumbling aggressively in a manner that is, for some reason, wholly likable. “That’s what passes for high-end journalism in Baltimore these days.”
One irony of The Wire’s global success is that there are now, presumably, plenty of middle-class Britons more familiar with the drugs economy, failing schools and corrupt politicians of Baltimore than they are with any part of inner-city Britain. So faithful is The Wire to the specific vernacular of its setting, indeed, that there may be Londoners or Mancunians whose knowledge of west Baltimore drugs slang exceeds that of dealers in Philadelphia or New York.
They will have a new opportunity to embellish their vocabularies next month with the first UK publication of The Corner, the 1997 non-fiction book that inspired The Wire. Written by Simon and his collaborator Ed Burns, a former Baltimore police detective, it is a forensic document of one year in the inner city, told through the prism of a single street corner, and the addicts and dealers for whom it’s the frontline in the struggle to survive. The publication is part of a high-profile year for Simon in Britain: he will appear at this year’s Hay literary festival, while the BBC will give The Wire its first airing on mainstream UK television.
Simon purports to be amused by his British success — “It’s hilarious to me that there are two people walking through Hyde Park right now, arguing about The Wire” — but it would be wrong to imply he’s surprised by it. Modesty isn’t part of the Simon repertoire. He freely describes The Wire as revolutionary television, capturing “the truth” about the “universal themes” of life in the era of unrestrained capitalism; you sense that, ultimately, he considers the global adulation only fitting. When people call The Wire Shakespearean, he demurs, but only because he considers it a Greek tragedy instead: Aeschylus updated, with urban institutions as the Olympian gods, destroying human lives on a whim. “It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason,” he has said. (In a show loaded with symbolism, it’s no coincidence that the coldest expression of pure capitalism in The Wire is the criminal mastermind of season two, The Greek.) You can watch The Wire, of course, as no more than a gritty soap opera, charting the lives of the alcoholic-but-brilliant detective Jimmy McNulty, the sociopathic kingpin Marlo Stanfield or the heartbreaking dope fiend Bubbles. But don’t imagine Simon isn’t also operating on another plane entirely.