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You Can’t Go Home Again?

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 the clinical notepad, and characters are apt to make declarations like “I go in for CAT scans more than you go in to change the oil in your car.”)

The figure of the writer as a damaged and immobilized body provides a focal point that makes Samaritan a tighter and narrower experience than its predecessor, the sprawling Freedomland, an ambitious fresco of violent crime and simmering racial mistrust which before it ran its course called into play the inhabitants and police forces of two adjoining New Jersey towns as they came into collision; but like Price’s other novels, Samaritan remains very much an anatomy of urban spaces, and an interrogation of the idea that neighborhood is fate.

Price’s first novel, The Wanderers (1974), published when he was twenty-four, was one of those perfectly formed debuts that can be both a burden and a blessing for a writer. It remains an exhilarating work, quite singular although easily classifiable as part of a line of American writing about hard-pressed city kids that extends from Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets to James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan to Chandler Brossard’s The Bold Saboteurs and, beyond that, through an imposing thicket of Fifties paperbacks with titles that set the blood racing like a species of rock- and-roll that doesn’t even need music: Gang Girl, Gang Rumble, Gutter Gang, Cellar Club, Zip-Gun Angels, Juvenile Jungle.

The Wanderers, however, is neither a lurid exposé nor a sociological thesis- novel; it’s more like a song, or more precisely a string of songs, the episodes of a ballad-history interlarded with dirty jokes, racist war cries, savage and sometimes deadly pranks, and the playlist and patter of early Sixties Top 40 radio. It is a recital of life within a particular tribal pocket of the Bronx, from the perspective of an adolescence that has rarely been so precisely recorded. Price writes from inside his characters’ impulses, graphing with a kind of musical notation the paths they improvise through a chaos of local lures and menaces, enlightened only fitfully by the fragmentary lore of the neighborhood. The impression is of a band of stragglers attempting to map a world in which there is hardly any time to think, where daily life is a series of random social collisions whose upshot is more than likely to be, if not violent, at least humiliating. All the while the music keeps playing—at parties and on the radio—like a promised paradise just out of reach: “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” “Could This Be Magic,” “Every Beat of My Heart,” “Any Day Now.”

The novels Price published after The WanderersBloodbrothers, Ladies’ Man, The Breaks—continued to explore the theme of growing up, often in ways that seemed transparently autobiographical. An interval of screenwriting was followed by the publication of Clockers, which appeared to mark a distinct break from the earlier preoccupation with adolescent and post-adolescent adjustments. The cast of characters was multigenerational and multiracial, and the scope of the action, centered on the urban drug trade, much wider than in the earlier books. Moving back and forth between two protagonists—a middle-aged white cop and a teenage black drug dealer—provided a means of measuring a divide both racial and generational. At the same time, the wise-guy humor that was so prominent a feature of the earlier books gave way to a more neutral, almost documentary tone.

In Freedomland and now Samaritan, race continues to be the pivot for Price’s fiction. What interests him is not so much the nature or specific cultural markers of ethnic identity asthe troubled borders between ethnic identities. He has made himself something of a specialist in describing the uncomfortable exchange, the misunderstood gesture, the failed attempt to compensate or to exact compensation for shortcomings or affronts that may have been seen through a distorting lens in the first place. Ethnic identity, for Price, is not so much a lore, an inherited body of understandings, as a situation in which one happens to find oneself; his characters may be classified as belonging to one group or another, but they function as individuals, more or less isolated and often in very uneasy relation to the label that supposedly defines them.

Ethnic identity here may be more a blank to be filled in on a hospital admission form than a connection to any store of cultural knowledge; and race itself is something that can change much the same way a neighborhood’s buildings and public spaces can change function from one generation to the next. When Ray asks his lover, Danielle, what she is (“I mean, you know, ethnically”), she replies: “I have one grandfather, he was Dominican, a grandmother who’s black, still alive, and another grandmother who was, I’m pretty sure, a Russian Jew.” “How about the other grandfather?” “The other grandfather? He was a sailor.” The terms change, and with them the terms of engagement. Such changes, however, do not necessarily make anything easier, since the unforgiving realities of where and how people live persist beyond any merely verbal definition of who they are. There are always enough inequities—of income, of education, of sheer luck—to keep things unsettled.

Freedomland dramatized racial misunderstanding on an almost epic scale with its narrative of an emotionally damaged young white woman who sparks a race riot when she accuses an imaginary black carjacker of abducting the young son whom she has in fact buried on the abandoned grounds of a local theme park devoted to great moments in American history. In a touch characteristic of Price, the woman who sets the demons of race hatred in motion is herself so devoted to black music that she can ward off her final personal collapse only by listening to an impressive roster of soul singers: “Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Arthur Alexander, O.V. Wright, Ruby Johnson, Clarence Carter, Mabel John—any of them, any tape, CD, anything.”

Samaritan has no crowd scenes, no sense of backstreet armies that can be mobilized by inflammatory rumors. The city Price describes in his new novel is a more self-contained and outwardly less violent place, a place of silences and buried memories as much as of noises and confrontations. The surfaces of Dempsy are constantly present, from the “small ruptured-asphalt South Precinct parking lot overlooking fogged-in marshland and an urban creek so polluted you could set it on fire” to the lobby of a housing project’s management office, with its culture of public service announcements: “the Gunbusters Anonymous poster, the No Pit Bulls notification, the buoyant group photo of Hispanic kids clustered around some monkey bars, the legend beneath declaring YO TENGO ASMA PERO ASMA NO ME TIENE A MI; and the stunned-looking teenaged football player…cradling a baby above the warning: AN EXTRA EIGHT POUNDS CAN KEEP YOU OFF THE TEAM.”

Here everything changes, and history is preserved if at all only in the imperfect recollections of those who remain behind. To come back, as Ray Mitchell does, is to find a different place: “The corner candy store was now a dispatch office for a dial-a-cab outfit, the movies an Iglesia Pentecostal, the florists a Church of Cherubim and Seraphim. Food Land was now the Cinderella House of Beauty, a formerly vacant lot the site of an abandoned prefab IRS annex.” It is not, simplistically, a question of going from bad to worse (although that can certainly happen), but simply of an instability with no reliable landmarks. Even the gaudiest remnants of the past survive only through transformation. The RKO Rajah, where one character remembers seeing Bruce Lee’s film Enter the Dragon as a child, has since devolved into a squat for crackheads, only to be reclaimed as a school building.

The book’s action takes place in the realms of powerlessness, in one randomly chosen subfiefdom of a power that is acknowledged only obliquely as the ultimate source of the bureaucracies through which people’s lives are processed: the education, health care, and criminal justice systems. Ray Mitchell becomes enmeshed in all three. On his return to Dempsy after a mysteriously curtailed career in television (“When the Trade Center went down I came back from LA,” he explains), he undertakes to run a creative writing workshop free of charge at the high school he graduated from; after the attack on him he is a patient in the local hospital; and as a victim who refuses to testify he is both a client of the police department and an object of their investigation.

The operating procedures of each of these systems is tracked by Price in considerable detail, and much of the book’s texture derives from the cadence of those procedures, with all the variance that must be allowed depending on the temperament of the person behind a particular desk. Almost half the characters in the book are, or are studying to be, low-level bureaucrats of one sort or another. A cop on the verge of retirement considers going back to school to study “addiction counseling, rehab management, youth services, family services, social services…. You know, whatever retired cops tend to major in.” The “system,” for Price, is not an impersonal force but a network of potential connections that is coaxed into action from moment to moment in ways that can be improvisational; whether its effect is malicious or benevolent can depend on chance bonds and unrehearsed gestures. Whatever is ultimately in charge of this world is not on the scene at all; the rest make up for that absent center as best they can.

The functioning of the various systems does not look much like the exercise of central power, and neither do the spaces that Price describes—the projects, plazas, commercial strips, playgrounds—add up to anything like a neighborhood. All the systems have a way of dissolving when examined from close up, none more so than the family. The characters in Samaritan tend to have children, and sometimes living parents, but there is scarcely anything that resembles a family. People cluster together temporarily, or come violently apart. A young man shoots his stepfather; a son dies of a drug overdose; another son, whose father is in jail, forms a familial bond with a man whose relations with his own daughter are profoundly alienated. In every relationship there is a sense of someone substituting for someone else who ought to have been there, had he or she not been detained by death, or divorce, or imprisonment, or the mere inability to respond effectively to other peoples’ needs.

Into the midst of this instability comes Ray, a writer, to teach writing. This is a gift he offers freely to his damaged neighborhood, almost as if to atone for his success as writer of a more or less formulaic sitcom, and the gesture becomes a kind of allegory, questioning what exactly it is that writers offer to those around them. The creative writing workshop here assumes the function of a social theater in which each student, through the poem or story fragments he brings to class, gets to declare his identity, almost in the fashion of some late medieval morality play giving voice to Envy and Charity and Sloth.

The writing workshop is only one aspect of a complex interweaving in Price’s book of different kinds of writing. Texts—whether of a student’s story or a professional TV writer’s Emmy-winning script—are presences, virtually characters. Without being heavy-handed about it, Price has often written in his novels about people interacting with records and movies and TV shows and books—with the songs of Mary Wells, and Frankenstein, and NYPD Blue, and the novels of Michael Crichton—as if he were describing the workings of an ecosystem. Already in The Wanderers, the youthful gang members went off to see West Side Story and incorporated its details into their own lives.

All these artifacts are the materials with which people adorn their being, and there is no literary condescension in the way that Price describes their effects and uses. His Ray Mitchell is himself someone who, at the lowest ebb of his adult life, attempts to reassemble a sense of identity out of the collectible fragments of a lost childhood,

a few years’ worth of vintage Mad magazines and Playboys, then spin-off products from early sixties TV shows: lunch boxes, board games and figurines; then mambo and cha-cha LPs, the risqué comedy albums of Belle Barth and Rusty Warren, two hundred first-edition Classics Illustrated comic books and a thousand paper cocktail napkins embossed with a variety of semi-dirty jokes.

He has found an unexpected success as a TV writer by transforming the inner-city high school where he used to teach into material for a successful sitcom, Brokedown High. It would not take much for the plot elements of Samaritan to become part of an episode of ER or NYPD Blue—any more than it would be implausible for the characters, who watch those shows, to take note of the fact. The line that separates these fictional characters from the fictions they absorb, and at times create, is finally a thin one; which is not to say that life is corrupted by fiction but that fiction, even the slickest commercial fiction or the most cliché-ridden and amateurish student fiction, is imbued with a great deal of life.

Somewhere between the poles of workshop writing and TV writing lies the very book that you are reading, and it is fascinating to watch Price furnish his novel with the very things that compete with it for the attention of his potential readers: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and hip-hop and televised wrestling. The disembodied dream-life of his characters is as much their world as its brick-and-mortar underpinnings, and the two come together in the cut-rate fantasy palace of the mall, with its “limp Muzak, then the lonely kiosks, each with its own one-product inanity—Metabolife, Fragrance Hut, Piercing Palace, Pager Pagoda, Astro Gems—the solitary vendors sitting hunched over on high stools and staring at air.”

The bookstore at the mall, where Ray goes in the hope of broadening the horizons of a withdrawn child, the son of his lover, for whom he has become a kind of impromptu guardian, turns out to be a further refinement of the same inferno of flavorlessness:

a sea of discount tables stacked with endless piles of crappy pop-up books, Star Wars spin-offs, Disney spin-offs, sandy-assed bikini calendars, topless firemen calendars, massage manuals, astrology manuals, Idiots and Dummies Guides to everything from beer to cancer….

Price has not only incorporated his world into his novel, but has put in it the table where a hurt or remaindered copy of it (or, perhaps, of an analogous future novel by Ray Mitchell) might one day sit.

How did the writer come to be damaged? By attempting, as it turns out, to bestow charity and understanding on all sides—to make a gift of himself, whether by teaching a writing workshop for free, or paying for the funeral of a schoolmate’s son, or taking a kind of parental responsibility for his lover’s son—without gauging the cost of such outreach. Ray is described as someone who, in an earlier stage, of which we catch only glimpses, became lost in a drug-fueled withdrawal from everyone around him, not least his wife and infant daughter. To make up for that failure to connect, he will now allow himself to be directed by “the slightly suspect craving to give” that may be simply the reverse side of his solipsistic inward turn.

Samaritan is, then, a story about a soft touch, but not the story you expect to hear: not a story about generosity unappreciated or exploited, of altruistic impulses thwarted or deformed by social pressures and human cupidity. Price’s Ray is neither Timon of Athens, nor Brecht’s Good Person of Szechuan, nor Frank Capra’s Mister Deeds: it is virtue as he defines it that is itself called into question. When goodness is a form of addiction—addiction in part to a staged public atonement for altogether private sins—it can scarcely be called goodness. Essentially Ray has enlisted the rest of the world into the resolution of an inner scenario, and the consequences of that moral miscalculation are enacted in the figure of a massive blow to the skull.

What I find least palatable in Price’s novels is his characters’ tendency to explain themselves, sometimes at considerable length. But in a culture of talk shows and endless alternate therapies these halting jags of self-analysis can hardly be called unrealistic. A certain amount of psychobabble is intrinsic to the small talk of the day. Price, instead of offering the stylized pleasure of carefully crafted laconic hardboiled exchanges, seems to prefer risking awkwardness by letting his characters go on as people do, circling around what they intend to say and never quite rescuing themselves from their own bewilderment. There are moments—when he writes, for instance, of Nerese, his policewoman heroine, being “desperate for the potential of grace offered by this last clearance”—when we seem dangerously close to that redemption that is the screenwriter’s all-purpose unifying theme. But he resists the temptation to liberate his characters too neatly from their predicaments by means of a movie-like moral panacea.

As a premise for fiction, the anatomy of goodness is finally as much of a bottomless pit as the anatomy of evil. Evil is at any rate a muted presence here; the sins are of omission, neglect, insufficient zeal, and everyone is to some degree damaged to begin with. Goodness, however, can be a medicine too strong for amateurs to mess with. Nerese, recalling a momentary gesture of sympathy from a cop when she was a troubled kid, describes it as the decisive moment in her life: “it felt like lightning.” The sympathetic impulse that Ray cherishes like a drug provokes dangers that he is not quite capable of imagining.

We expect the solution to the mystery to hinge, as most mysteries do, on violent malevolence; but the answer when it comes has been withheld, it turns out, not because it’s too fraught with menace or caught up in illicit passion, but because it’s shameful. It is from the most unnoticed and powerless corner of the hero’s life—the child he’d cared for, and whose emotional neediness he had played into without allowing himself to grasp its immensity—that the ultimate sucker punch materializes. The penalty for not having paid attention—for not having fully understood the characters in his private drama—is a moral embarrassment so deep that permanent silence would almost be preferable. Price does not choose quite such a cataclysmic finale, but a sorrowful austerity plays around the final pages; nobody is to be quite saved or quite condemned. What persists, as an emblem of all that Price’s characters can neither transform or entirely escape from, is “the defeated block of six-story walkups and unfenced lots, two mini-marts posted at opposite ends of the street like lookouts.”

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