Richard Price’s Samaritan is a novel about return. The grown-up child returns to his parents’ home; the native lured by the material luxuries of Los Angeles and the TV industry returns to his birthplace, a working-class New Jersey neighborhood which has sunk deeper into poverty and neglect; the prodigal (here, cocaine-addled and self-absorbed) son returns to what he takes for the path of virtue. Return is indeed a form of virtue, since the hero’s old neighborhood—in a smallish city called Dempsy of which Price has written previously in Clockers and Freedomland—is the kind that most people are prepared to abandon if they can find their way to more glittering places. To go back becomes for the scriptwriter Ray Mitchell—or, at least, is intended to become—at once a form of atonement and a restoration to a sense of reality.
When the book opens, however, that reality has already been shattered, in the most literal way. Ray is in a hospital struggling to survive a brutal attack in his apartment; a powerful blow to the skull has left him suffering from the effects of contrecoup, in which, as a nurse explains, “the brain gets bounced to the opposite side of the cranial cavity, then rebounds back to the center. It’s like whiplash of the gray matter.” Ray presumably knows who did it, but he isn’t talking. A detective—a black woman named Nerese Ammons, whom Ray knew when they were in junior high together, and who remembers him gratefully for the help he once gave her after a serious schoolyard accident—takes it on herself to break his silence.
Price quickly establishes the novel’s schematic but serviceable structure, consisting of chapters that alternate between the present and the recent past, Nerese pursuing her investigation in the present, while the string of events leading up to the attack is permitted gradually to unfold in flashback. Every bit of withheld information will emerge in due course, until the narrative is resolved with a revelation that quite ingeniously makes sense of the enigmas that have preceded it. To the extent that it’s concerned with finding out the identity of the attacker, Samaritan is a kind of mystery novel, although the mystery is centered, curiously, on the motives of the victim. The book turns out to be an elaborate explanation of how the hero has brought his catastrophe on himself.
Bandaged and speaking with difficulty, Ray assumes a still, sphinxlike presence at the heart of his own story, a protagonist who has been sidelined before the book even began and who may at any moment be reduced to nothing more than an accumulation of traumatic aftereffects: “even through the empurpled mask of ecchymosis that raccooned his eyes she could plainly pick up the hollow pockets of shadow deepening under his blood-drowned whites, the Decadron-induced sleeplessness.” (The medical realism of Samaritan amounts almost to an aesthetic gesture; a universal vulnerability is spelled out in the language of …