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Bubbles can call me.

March 3, 2008 | 11:18 am


Sunday night, the penultimate episode of "The Wire." Bubbles goes to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and, well-groomed and collected, speaks to the group. He was walking through a park, he says, and wanted to get high. So he called his sponsor but couldn't reach him. He called a bunch of people on the list they'd given out for just this purpose, to help him stay clean, but got no answer. He took the list out of a pocket, smoothing the rumpled paper. Wait, I thought, I've seen this before. Then, just as I remembered, a woman in the crowd says he could have called her -- she'd surely have answered, innuendo intended. Was "The Wire" repeating itself?

No -- I hadn't seen this before. I'd read it.

Inspired by the unparalleled writing on "The Wire," I've finally begun reading the books by the novelists who write for the show. Dennis Lehane and Richard Price have written recent episodes. I read a version of that flirtation-via-NA scene in "Drama City" by George Pelecanos, who did indeed write last night's episode. In the novel, it's actually several scenes and shows how the NA meetings slowly, slowly help recovering addicts inhabit their lives in multiple ways. It's the kind of side story that "The Wire" is so good at weaving into the whole; but it's worth noting that in the book, with its gentle evolution, it has more resonance.

All of which is to say that "The Wire," for all its novelistic complexity -- which is so well-known that to call it "Dickensian" has become a cliche -- is still not a novel. It's compressed and heightened and intense and wonderful, but it's a sprint. In a novel, these writers have room to stretch and move. The pacing is different. The characters can enjoy their time on the page. I'm glad "The Wire" has led me, as someone who is bewildered in the mystery section of bookstores, to their work.

And when "The Wire," to which I am entirely addicted, is gone -- if it is not revived for future seasons, which is highly unlikely -- I know those novels are waiting and will be able to eclipse the pain of withdrawal.

Carolyn Kellogg