Found out this morning that one of my favorite writers, Richard Price, has a new novel just out in the States.
Reasons I love Richard Price; his books, “The Wanderers” – ’50’s teenage street life in The Bronx as soundtracked by Dion DiMucci. Made into a great film by Philip Kaufman. Plus, “Clockers”, 80’s NJ projects and the crack life, set to a ghetto soundtrack. Awesome book and a pretty good film by Spike Lee. Writing for ‘The Wire’; a couple of killer episodes in series’ three & four.
Richard Price and the Lush Life;
The more things change, the more they stay the same – even in the evolving heart of Manhattan.
That’s just one of the lessons to be learned in Lush Life, Richard Price’s caustic fable of murder, injustice and culture clashes in the urban jungles of the Lower East Side.
Like the misanthropes who populate his novels, including his newest, Price remains just below the surface world. Not only is he responsible for celebrated screenwriting from The Color of Money to HBO’s The Wire, he’s had a very respectable career as a novelist, fictionalizing his Bronx adolescence in The Wanderers and crafting the crack opera Clockers into a modern crime classic. More recent novels Freedomland and Samaritan found him waxing poetic on racial tensions in America, using New Jersey as his microcosm.
I interviewed the author not long ago and found Price even more fascinated with his new backdrop, a place he likens to an overabundant garden. “I don’t want to sound like the United Nations, but this place is a riot of people,” he said. “It’s as close to Byzantium as you could ask for.”
Here’s the pitch on the new novel: During a drunken evening on the town, three lads are confronted by a pair of brazen but unsteady assailants. Eric Cash, 35, is a glossy representative of the new inhabitants of a very old neighborhood. He brays to the world that he’s a multihyphenate artistic sort but has spent the past few years skimming the take as maitre d’ at upscale restaurants.
Fellow hipster Steve Boulware is so dead drunk that he has to be propped up between Cash and handsome young bartender Ike Marcus. When someone sticks a gun in his face, Ike goes off, telling his murderers, “Not tonight, my man.”
Bang, he’s dead, and the offenders are gone before his last heartbeat.
At least that’s Eric’s version of events, one which jaundiced homicide detective Matty Clark and his ambitious partner, Yolanda Bello, find to be less than clear-cut, especially as conflicting facts come spilling out. Cash swears he called 911, but his cell phone is a blank, not to mention he once owned a gun whose current whereabouts are unknown. A pair of “eyewits” claims there were no assailants and that the trio turned on each other.
Not only is Eric not getting much sympathy from the cops, he and his ilk don’t sway much sympathy from the ethnic pioneers – the entrenched populations of Chinese, blacks, Latinos and Orthodox Jews – around whom these new immigrants revolve like asteroids in a terminal orbit. Given enough momentum, there’s bound to be a confrontation sooner or later, which comes as a surprise to guys like Eric.
“Bunch of middle-aged, talentless artistes complaining about the very people who made them rich,” scoffs Eric’s boss, old-school restaurateur Harry Steele. “Sitting there saying they have a right to perfect peace and quiet in their own neighborhood . . . No. You don’t. This is New York.”
And there’s Price’s real subject in all its dilapidated glory: an island of contradictions that still represents both wasteland and Promised Land to its denizens, depending on where they’re standing at the time. The false resurrection of urban renewal, the bleak cells of the jail known as “The Tombs,” the punk boutiques and overpriced party spaces are all painted accurately and populated with well-realized characters. Along the way, Price also captures the paradoxes that plague each character and, in doing so, makes them an integral part of his complicated landscape.
Matty Clark’s ferocious drive to find the answers in Ike’s murder stand in stark contrast to his role as failed father to children he refers to as “the big one” and “the other one.” Yolanda butters up Eric, trying to get him to spill his guts, and then turns viciously on him with murderous accusations.
Against Eric’s melodramatic version of events, the icy back story of gang shooters interlaced with Clark’s brooding investigation seems almost mundane by comparison.
All of this is unsentimental stuff, portrayed with unflinching bluntness and infused with Price’s watermark: the blistering and deeply convincing dialogue that makes a reader believe he’s eavesdropping on another reality.
The funny thing is that everyone in the book – be it the new bohemians populating the city’s cafes, the cops delving into a commonplace crime, the project orphans trying to scrape some dignity or the surviving victims of this accidental trespass – has his own act, complete with a mask firmly in place at all times.
But the consequences of their inadvertent collisions are all too real. Just ask Eric, who ends up with nobody on his side, facing the music in ways he couldn’t have imagined. “The people of this city are rubberneckers,” he thinks, “and I’m the car crash.”
This is Price’s urban realism stripped to its most basic, and his prose is at its leanest and meanest in years. While wryly satirizing the newly gentrified atmosphere of Lower Manhattan in a post 9-11 world, Price also pays tribute to its complicated history and capably fashions a very typical crime drama.
This story might be the proverbial car crash, but just like a real one, good luck trying to avert your eyes.
Clayton Moore. (check his blog, ‘Bang’)