The source for the outline of Richard Price’s sixth novel will be immediately obvious to its readers. On October 25, 1994, Susan Smith rolled her Mazda down an incline into John D. Long Lake in Union, South Carolina, drowning her two sons, three-year-old Michael and fourteen-month-old Alex. She claimed to police that her car, with the two boys inside, had been stolen by a black man. Nine harrowing days later she confessed to the crime, and after a brief trial was sentenced to life in prison, where she remains under suicide watch. The case was almost unbelievably emblematic, the vortex of an array of up-to-the-minute pathological trends: parents killing their children, whites ascribing their crimes to blacks, the legacy of sexual abuse of children by parents upon the following generation. Susan Smith was called “a frightening enigma” by People; she reminded others of Medea. There was also in her story a trace of Clyde Griffith’s thwarted ambition, in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: she had been dating the boss’s son, and blamed the failure of the relationship on her children.
Price has taken the germ of the case and relocated it, physically, to the scarred cities of his version of Hudson County, New Jersey, also the setting of his previous novel, Clockers (1992). He also relocates it psychologically, since the population density alone of the novel’s Northern urban setting makes for a volatile set of circumstances. The mother here is Brenda Martin, who lives in mostly white Gannon (which in some ways resembles Hoboken, in others Howard Beach, Queens), and works at a child-care facility in a housing project in largely black Dempsy (an amalgam, perhaps, of Jersey City, Elizabeth, and Bayonne).
One summer night she arrives at the Dempsy Medical Center in shock, her hands bleeding, claiming to be the victim of a carjacking, the deed having occurred near the entrance to a small park on the fringe of the project where she works. The alleged perp is a black man, “bald, about five-ten, two hundred pounds.” Her four-year-old son, Cody, had been in the car.
The case is immediately taken on by Lorenzo Council, a middle-aged black cop who is a lifelong resident of the same project and has made its safety and security his personal mission. He makes a mistake right away, however, in deciding to call Brenda’s brother, Danny, a Gannon cop. He had imagined that Danny would arrive to comfort his sister. Instead Danny, a choleric fathead, sets in motion a lockdown of the project by a force consisting largely of other white cops from Gannon. The stage is set for riot or worse.
The story is told in relays by the only two people who develop any closeness to or feeling for Brenda: Lorenzo and Jesse Haus, a young reporter whose elderly Jewish Communist parents still live in another Dempsy project, where she and her brother grew up virtually the only white kids. Lorenzo and Jesse take turns nursing …