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, shepherding, and scrutinizing Brenda, who is indeed an enigma, an unlikely sum of contradictions. Conditioned by knowledge of the Susan Smith case, the reader presumes her guilt from the start. Her account of the crime is transparently vague, unlikely in such details as she does provide, apparently no more than expedient. But as the novel develops, the alternative explanation seems increasingly hard to believe as well. Brenda simply does not seem capable of killing her own child, or of maliciously pinning blame on a black man. Cody has been her constant intimate, just about her only ally in the world, and whatever other regular human contact she enjoys has been with her fellow workers and the children, all of them black, at the Study Club in the Henry T. Armstrong Houses.
Brenda has at some point in the past been severely damaged, that much is clear. Price doesn’t stoop to providing a conveniently pat backstory; there are no particular indications that her dead father was a bad sort, although her brother is dangerously violent and her mother is coldly detached.
“…This one time I just said to her, ‘Mommy, maybe you shouldn’t love me so much.’ I was like eight, nine, and she stopped for a minute, you know, beating her breast, and she looks at me, like…” Brenda narrowed her eyes and cocked her head to one side in an attitude of sinister assessment. “And she says, ‘You don’t want me to love you so much? OK.”’ Still playing her mother, Brenda nodded to herself as if making some internal decision. “‘OK’—and I swear, that woman did not talk to me for three days. Three days, until I was pulling on her, begging her, ‘Mommy, Mommy.’ And then she looks at me, gives me one of those smiles, says, ‘All right. Just remember this the next time you think I shouldn’t love you so much.”’
Brenda, who passed rapidly through a string of black and Hispanic boyfriends, eventually had her child with a South American man who, according to her, soon returned south. Before this she had briefly adhered to a therapy cult in Manhattan whose members lived communally and made clinically formal dates with each other for every conceivable activity, from dog walking to fucking (this detail will sound instantly familiar to anyone who spent time on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the l970s).
She appears to have been, if anything, an obsessively devoted mother. She finds her greatest solace in soul music, possessing detailed knowledge of the lesser-known singers of the 1960s—she spends most of the novel enclosed within headphones playing the likes of Ann Peebles and Z.Z. Hill. She is childlike, spaced-out, intermittently lucid, occasionally penetrating, generally indecipherable. She gives no indication of racism, or at least her behavior and attitudes are consistently eccentric with anyone in any setting. She has disconcerting light gray eyes; a former lover says, “Those eyes of hers, they were like, like anarchy.”
Her bookended keepers, Lorenzo and Jesse, are by turns mystified and exasperated, pitying and suspicious and tenderly solicitous of her, as they shuttle her around and guard her from the mob of press and public that is always threateningly massed nearby. Brenda exemplifies the power of the powerless: that through one stray circumstance someone ostensibly marginal and pathetic can turn an entire county on its head, can actually wield the power of life and death: she supplies the excuse for a racial confrontation that eventually does provide a body count.
The power she has over her keepers is more subtle. By force of character—perhaps negative force of character—she causes them to act against the way they understand themselves. Lorenzo, in caring for her and coming in some measure to believe her, gets himself regarded as a traitor to his race, something already in question by virtue of his being a cop. Jesse, who has willfully made herself into an unsympathetic fact-digger, a lone gun, finds to her alarm that she is becoming something like a surrogate mother to Brenda. Her naked vulnerability has a potent effect on the reader, too, for whom it is less a question of believing her story than of wanting, despite oneself, to believe it.
But Brenda gets little sympathy from any of the contending forces; the whites who want revenge ostensibly on her behalf are if anything the most brutal—adults stand under her apartment window and call “Mommy! Mommy!” The press set up their camps along the perimeter, from project to apartment to police station, poised for an event, interviewing anybody on legs, randomly deploying their sun-guns, bivouacking in bars, barking obvious questions at Brenda every time she appears outdoors. Black people are not especially interested in giving her a hard time; they are too busy being pushed around by the several invading forces and attempting in various unconnected ways to resist. Everybody of every description stands united in one anxious, sadistic, voyeuristic, or opportunistic common cause: waiting for the worst.
The anxiety is thick on the page; it virtually replaces suspense as the plot motor. The timespan of the novel is only a few days, but every minute seems accounted for. Waiting is the chief activity of nearly
Price is a prodigiously gifted writer who thinks big and can also burrow far inside his characters. He has learned a great deal from his experience as a screenwriter, especially how to move. He shifts his view from long shot to close-up and back with invisible grace; he animates a whole city, with secondary and tertiary rings of vivid characters behind the principals, and dozens, even hundreds more glimpsed one by one beyond, and additional thousands discernable in outline. He is superb at crowd scenes, at depicting the brink of chaos, at ragged stylized conversations where the parties communicate through cross-purposes, at telling cultural details that leap from mere sociological furniture to fundaments of individual psychological makeup.
Uncle Theo, in his seventies, had still favored tight continental slacks and, even in the hottest months, turtleneck sweaters. He had retired as a bookkeeper at the Apollo but remained a fey smoothy who addressed everybody as “Baby”—everybody except the great entertainers he had been introduced to over the years. He referred to them as “Mister” Billy Eckstine, “Miss” Dinah Washington, “Mister” Sam Cooke, and “Miss” Sarah Vaughn. Uncle Theo was a “character” who had enticed decades of projects kids with ice cream and pizza, suckering them into digging Lionel Hampton jive his way through “Hey Ba Ba Re Bop,” Joe Liggins work out on “The Honeydripper,” Billy Ward and the Dominoes go on about a “Sixty Minute Man.” He always asked the boys if they knew what that meant, Sixty Minute Man, but that was as far as that kind of stuff ever went with Uncle Theo. Hundreds of Armstrong kids over the years, Lorenzo included, sitting on that plastic-sheathed couch, trying not to laugh at him.
He showed off all these skills to great effect in Clockers, which seemed like a terrific example of an obvious and widespread literary genre—contemporary inner-city realism—until you tried to think of other examples. The genre turned out to be familiar mostly from certain TV series and the outer edges of certain movies. Presumably it is just too hard, has too many moving parts and too many moral pitfalls—and maybe it seems somehow too old-fashioned—to spawn many examples.
Freedomland is another rare member of that genre, but it is quite a different book from its predecessor. The interview with Price that ran in the Spring 1996 issue of The Paris Review was illustrated with a page of manuscript “from an untitled novel,” which turns out to be this one, a bit of an early sequence in which Lorenzo is driving Brenda from the hospital back to look at the crime scene. The principal change from manuscript to book is that Lorenzo originally was called Andre. In Clockers there is a character called Andre the Giant, a black cop who lives in the projects and has made them his mission—the Lorenzo role. Andre was one of the few morally integral characters amid the stew of crack dealers and corrupt cops in the earlier book, which was also set in Dempsy; in this one, though, nearly all the characters are trying their best, with varying degrees of success and self-delusion, to lead normal lives. That includes Brenda, who after all has a job and a glumly furnished apartment and who educates her son via a painstaking curriculum of rental videos. The drug dealers are peripheral, kids or wrecks. The cops may at worst be malicious or ignorant, but none appears dirtier than he should be.
The style of the change is significant, too: a tag such as “Andre the Giant” fit the norm in that book, with, e.g., cops called Smurf and Thumper, a gangster called Buddha Hat. Clockers was permeated with hip-hop style, the kind associated with the Notorious B.I.G. and Dr. Dre and the Wu-Tang Clan: cops-‘n’-perps, drug traffic, large- caliber firearms, flashy clothes and even flashier speech. It’s fitting that Freedomland instead uses Sixties soul as its motif. The works of Solomon Burke and Barbara Lewis and Percy Sledge and O.V. Wright and the rest use fine-grained and undemonstrative means—tight horn charts and rhythm sections—to highlight the complexities and depths of the human voice. Likewise, the many intricacies of Freedomland are recessed, so as not to interfere with the passions at its center. In Clockers all the characters were self-consciously acting out roles; in Freedomland assigned social parts break down in the face of the emotional storm that affects anyone who comes into close contact with Brenda even more turbulently than the anxieties her story unleashes upon the population at large. For all the size of its canvas, Freedomland is a rather intimate novel.
The novel shares something else with the soul ballad. If Clockers carried a liability, it was that its complex moral world (in which a drug dealer can be the most fastidious character on the scene, for instance) and its structural adherence to certain conventions of the crime novel sometimes seemed at odds—or, at least, the conventions made for such a smooth ride that it was possible to read the book without registering much more than its story, something which might not be considered a liability in very many other cases. Freedomland employs conventions of its own, architecturally musical ones, such as symmetries and crescendos. Price is not afraid to stack the deck now and again: the way ostensible opposites Lorenzo and Jesse echo each other, the way wrenching two-character scenes are succeeded by big urgent crowd scenes that are like nineteenth-century genre paintings—from the orator at the center to the tots and drunks on the fringes—the way giant lumbering symbols are deployed. “[T]he ruptured asphalt oval that centered the Henry Armstrong Houses…was usually barren,” we learn on the first page, “but tonight it was planted with dozens of new refrigerators awaiting installation, resting on their backs in open crates like a moonstruck sea of coffins.” And there they lie throughout the entire rest of the book. No postmodern ambivalence or existential diminuendo will do here—the author is cheerfully manipulating the reader’s emotions, artfully controlling the chaos, setting up the payoff, delivering catharsis.
For such practices Price might have expected a critical drubbing in an earlier age, but this is unlikely to happen now. When there is virtually no vanguard literature to speak of, and popular literature consists primarily of genre product, most fiction drifts untethered somewhere in the middle. And Price’s is a kind of populist fiction that has few analogies at present. It is no more dishonest in its emotional manipulation than a big movie of the Hollywood golden era necessarily had to be.
It’s not entirely free of stumbling blocks, though. Take the title, which is large-scale, contains multitudes, generates numerous associations, sticks in the mind. It literally refers to an amusement park in the Bronx—not far from the projects where Price grew up—that took American history as its motif. It was shaped like a map of the lower forty-eight, and you could ride a trolley through the Chicago Fire and eat fried clams on the Barbary Coast. It only lasted a few years in the early Sixties, until it was torn down to make way for Co-Op City. Price isn’t content with just using the name, though; he also wants to use the place to stage a couple of the book’s most charged climactic scenes, where the solution to the case—or what passes for one—is finally, with overdetermined irony, brought to light. So he has to come up with a lesser substitute, inventing a Jersey knockoff called Freedomtown, which fell into decline and decay and now exists as heavily eloquent ruins. The title alone would have been sufficient; a reference to Freedomland by one of the characters would have served to give it context. The second-rank ruins make for an awkward contrivance that requires diversionary tactics and only serves to underscore the thudding symbolism. In a book so meticulously constructed, where the pencil lines have been so carefully erased, this is an annoying distraction.
But it’s also a relatively minor matter. Literary conventions such as symbols are expedients for Price, who is primarily interested in the intricacies of communication. The drama and value of his book rest on dialogue and interchange, or the lack thereof. Brenda, at its center, is a kind of sun who emits rays of great effect but herself takes in nothing, except maybe from music. Lorenzo and Jesse attempt in their different ways to mediate between Brenda and the world and among the numerous other players. Everyone else rotates singly or in groups in narrow circles of one-sided conversation. Cops and residents, blacks and whites, youths and elders, press and public, Dempsy and Gannon, all are balanced in irreconcilable opposition. It’s a giant mobile, exquisitely and precariously suspended, and Price makes it spin. He has taken on the task of confronting directly a subject that has otherwise generated hysteria, hand-wringing, overall little of value, and he has succeeded in making it tangible, credible, and very near understandable—although without explaining it away. That he has also made it into an entertainment in no way diminishes it. He seems to believe in literature the way the nineteenth century did—like Zola or Frank Norris, or Dreiser, he gives every indication of believing that a novel can affect public perception, can shorten the distance between the ordinary consumer-of-good-will and the most difficult public events. He could not feel this way and disdain the need for pleasure, not these days.