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Book review: Lush Life, by Richard Price

by Jerome Weeks 2 Mar 2008 11:34 AM

______________________________________________________ Richard Price Q&A on the National Book Critics Circle blog, Critical Mass Profile of Richard Price in The New York Times Arts & Leisure section ______________________________________________________ Lush Life is Richard Price’s best novel since Clockers. Perhaps it’s been writing for HBO’s The Wire (and not the movies), perhaps it’s because Lush Life is set […]


Lush Life, by Richard Price

Richard Price Q&A on the National Book Critics Circle blog, Critical Mass
Profile of Richard Price in The New York Times Arts & Leisure section

Lush Life is Richard Price’s best novel since Clockers.

Perhaps it’s been writing for HBO’s The Wire (and not the movies), perhaps it’s because Lush Life is set in New York’s Lower East Side and not Dempsy, his stand-in for Jersey City in Freedomland and Samaritan, perhaps these things have tied him both closer to researched reality and to the forward momentum of the crime novel. Whatever it was, Lush Life is tauter, more consistently engaging than either of those two books, which were pretty marvelous Dickensian epics of American urban life on their own, but they got a little thick, not just dense but slow, especially the self-reflective Samaritan.

Lush Life will still confound readers who are looking for straight police procedurals or shoot-em-up thrillers. The literary rhythms, the slangy-jargony dialogue, the incredible feel for details in a gentrifying-but-still-gritty neighborhood that mixes old Jewish immigrants, project kids and Manhattan trendoids, the psychological introspection in families and friends wounded by a murder — Price is after more than just law-and-order, crime-and-punishment, justice-is-served. Lush Life is going to end up on a lot of end-of-the-year Top 10 lists, and deservedly so.

One thing (among many) that marks Lush Life as a Price novel: The protagonist is morally muddled, a mess, and a key fact about the murder that happens — in this case, a street hold-up gone bad — is withheld by him out of fear and guilt, even as the city almost comes apart over the crime and his silence. Why he withholds and what that key fact is are the same central character questions in Lush Life and Freedomland and Clockers.

In this case, Eric Cash is a wannabe-writer and almost-actor who still finds himself drifting along, unfulfilled, as a restaurant manager at 35. He goes out drinking with two waiters, younger versions of himself (or so he fears), and they’re confronted by two possibly black, possibly Hispanic street thugs. The story Eric tells the police: One of the trio, Ike, is shot, one is too drunk to see anything — and one of them runs to call for help.

Despite the story of a hold-up, the NYPD, led by Det. Matty Clark, want to pin this one on Eric. Witnesses say there was no pair of muggers. There’s no record of a cell phone call from Eric to 911 and he has a drug bust in his past. Based on what they know, the cops lean on Eric — hard.

From here, Lush Life fans out to fill in the lives of Little Dap and Tristan Acavedo, the two possible killers. It follows the murdered Ike’s grieving father, as he comes apart and focuses obsessively on the stalled case, clearly as a way to make up for being an absentee father. We learn about Matty Clark himelf, his ex-wife, his two loser-doper sons.

A chief aspect of his stories that Price handles with tremendous deftness — it could even be called his signal contribution to the great American crime novel — is the mistaken assumptions, the crossed wires, the feeling-around-in-the-dark-and-getting-things-wrong of a police investigation, a media circus, an internal departmental hearing and a multiple family tragedy.

It’s not just — as in a typical murder mystery — the reader is kept in the dark or fed red herrings. Nor is it that the detective makes initial mistakes. This, too, is a convention of the genre. Rather, Price lets the reader know enough to see where the police get some things wrong, but he doesn’t give the reader enough to understand what’s happening. Or why. So we are in a muddle, too, but it’s a different muddle. Everyone is in a different muddle, fogged up from personal illusions, institutional pressures, racial fears, private drives.

Price also provides something of a Greek chorus with an undercover team, a “Quality of Life” squad he calls them — cops who are assigned to drive around and bust any little violation. It’s based on the “broken window” theory of social dissolution and crime (a neighborhood becomes prey to criminals when it starts letting itself go, letting the broken windows go unrepaired). Prowling around on their own, the team seems unrelated to the main story of Lush Life, although given Price’s larger portrait of American big-city economics and crime, they offer telling insights. They also convey the piecing together of disconnected reports and arrests that can make up an investigation — in this case, coughing up a single, small lead.

They also inject some wonderfully bitter humor as they hunt for suspects and hope to trade up from petty beefs to bigger fish. Watching a young thug stalking an older Asian on his way home, one officer asks if they should grab the kid now. The reply: “I don’t want to come between a young man and his dreams.”

Later, the same cops are grilling a bust, trying to get him to turn. He pleads with them, his girlfriend is a couple months pregnant. Oh well, they say, by the time you get out of prison, that kid won’t even know you’re his father. “You’ll be Uncle Plexiglass.”

The portrait of the self-loathing Eric with his fading aspirations, Ike’s sorrowing, desperate, re-married father and Tristan, the sensitive ghetto kid with an abusive step-father, a kid who keeps a notebook to write down his hip-hop rhymes but also carries a gun: These could be types, models for whole generations, yet Price makes them feel individual, hopelessly real. If there’s a weakness, it’s that Tristan, who acts out of peer pressure as much as anything, feels vague on the inside.

But on the block where I live, there are crumbling wood-frame homes, owned by aging families, a number of them Hispanic, families that have been here for years. Next to them are brand-new, suburban monster mansions selling for three-quarters of a million dollars, blocking the sunlight, taking over the neighborhood. Price’s New York turf, with its colliding ethnic groups, pop-cultural fads and upscale colonization, really isn’t all that different from much of the rest of America.

It’s our lush life.