The protagonists of Richard Price’s first four novels suffer from the fatal weakness of character known to moralists, comedians, writers of tragedy, and bullshit artists as New York City. Brash and withdrawn; hangdog and prone to delusions of grandeur; cynical and compassionate; fixated on the quick score, the next hit; lousy with moments of grace and of violence; ineffectual yet capable of anything; hilarious and sad; speaking a rapid-fire Yiddish-Italian-black creole of poetry, bullshit, and monte-shark patter, New York City defines the Price hero. It gives him shape, explains him, demarcates the upper limit of what he can imagine and the depth to which he can sink. New York is an ideal he can fail to live up to, a con game, a baggie filled with baby laxative, a set of bad habits, the collective bonehead MO of eight million repeat offenders.
As a hungry young hopeful, raised in the Parkside Houses and Co-op City, Price got off to an admirable start with The Wanderers (1974), a loose-knit Bronx myth cycle, set in the early Sixties, that reads like a bunch of twice-told tales honed and crafted to wow upstaters, hillbillies, Californians, and other rubes, about life in the bad old Bronx. Some of the book’s sections are tinged with Ashcan Guignol worthy of EC Comics and others (including the unforgettable gang fight with a bunch of psychotic midgets called the Ducky Boys) approach magic realism in their blend of the preposterous with deadeye detail.
But like one of his own early protagonists, in the three novels that followed—Bloodbrothers (1976), Ladies’ Man (1978), and The Breaks (1983)—Price seemed to struggle to find a way to break the hold of New York City on his imagination. Wisely sensing that there was no percentage in attempting to repeat the extravagances of The Wanderers, Price reduced his crew of heroes from a Round Table of the Projects to a lone protagonist, abandoned the retrospective mythologizing, and brought his characters and milieu into what was then present-day New York. He laid even greater emphasis on black humor (Bloodbrothers features some excruciating, horribly funny scenes charting the misadventures of its hero Stony De Coco as a hospital orderly). He began to practice a funky, Seventies brand of street-level reportage, training onto a quirky range of New York City subcultures (the building trades, the central post office, telephone sales, singles bars) a descriptive eye as acute as his moral one—for no American writer has ever written with such consistent power as Price on the subject of shame, of the failure of good intentions, of life as lived in the gap between Intention and Act.
The intermittently brilliant, sometimes stolidly written novels that followed The Wanderers all chart the progress, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say they advance the stasis, of an interchangeable series of cocky, sympathetic, fucked-up, motor-mouthed Bronx boys who contend with forces of character and fate recognizable both from classical tragedy and from the post-Odets New York noir that reimagined it. His heroes’ strength is their weakness: wanting, passionately wanting more; and their weakness—they talk too much—is their strength. People are always telling Price’s heroes, in these early novels, that they ought to do stand-up (never that they ought to be novelists). The hair-trigger, foulmouthed riff pioneered by Lenny Bruce and perfected by Richard Pryor, making gold from the straw of indignity and humiliation (of other people and, most amusingly, of oneself): this is a Price hero’s only weapon.
Like their main characters, these early novels lash out, try hard, shoot for greatness, and fail; they attempt to get by, when things go wrong, on chutzpah and jive. But it’s tough to improvise a novel, as it were, on the spur of the moment, out of scutwork jobs, demented lovers, bottoming-outs. You can feel Price working the room in these novels, digging deep into his repertoire, time and again dusting off the best material—the surprising richness of life in the racially diverse, working-class projects of yore.
A long seven years separate the aptly titled The Breaks from Clockers, the novel in which Price at last broke free of the hold of New York City. He effected this trick by the apparently simple expedient of moving, fictionally, across the river. On the far side of the Hudson, he raised up a ruined city from his imagination and called it Dempsy, as if in conformity with the principle suggested by Paterson that rusting New Jersey mill towns must share their names with prizefighters. Here he set his next three novels, Clockers (1992), Freedomland (1998), and Samaritan (2003), the first and third of them masterpieces.
In the course of the seven-year hiatus between the publication of The Breaks and Clockers, Price had worked hard to become a sought-after and acclaimed Hollywood screenwriter, receiving an Oscar nomination for his sly adaptation of Walter Tevis’s The Color of Money (1986); he had also become, by his own admission, the owner of a “pedestrian, 80s-style cocaine habit.” It was the conjunction of these altered circumstances, Price’s empirical gifts, and the same old New York story of ambition/humiliation that led to the birth of Dempsy and the writing of Clockers, the novel by which Richard Price reinvented himself. Scripting Sea of Love (1989), a police thriller starring Al Pacino as a New York homicide detective, Price’s jones for reportorial accuracy—his apparently insatiable craving to flat-out nail a subculture, not merely its particulars of slang, dress, and decor but its organizing principles, its socioeconomic wiring plan and power-and-money flow charts—obliged him to put in long hours shadowing actual homicide cops as they went about their work.
Given Price’s boyhood in the projects and his own struggles with cocaine, it was perhaps inevitable that in his midnight rides with the “murder police” his ravening attention would be drawn to the violent workings of the drug trade in the big-city projects. As over the course of several years he grew to know and understand players on all sides of the war on drugs, Price found himself in possession of a wealth of characters and stories. It just so happened that these stories were New Jersey stories; that these afflicted housing projects were the tower blocks of Jersey City. In a scenario of humbling rejection worthy of a Richard Price novel, Price had in preparing Sea of Love originally applied to the NYPD for permission to ride with its detectives and officers, and been turned down. Price’s prestige, his homeboy and his showbiz credentials, none of that could make a dent in New York’s carapace of red tape and monstrous indifference to the plans and ambitions of its children.
So like a buyer priced out of the market, Price became a bridge-and-tunnel novelist. And he seemed to derive strength, a reverse Antaeus, from the alien soil under his feet. But New Jersey was not the only strange territory for which Price struck out. Until now his novels, for all their verve and slanging, had been steadfastly and earnestly “literary” in their depiction of street truths and psychological extremes, clearly inspired by the works of urban demonologists like Dostoevsky, Henry Roth and Henry Miller, and Hubert Selby Jr. Insofar as the early novels had plots, they tended to rely on the intrusion of the adventitious into the deterministic clockwork of city life, on the random onset of storms in the weather systems in his heroes’ heads.
Now, as if guided by the inherent conventions of police work, the formal structure of crime and investigation, cops and robbers, mystery and solution, Price’s novels lost their nebulous moodiness, tightened up, and took on the hard-edged glint of police procedurals. And as countless “literary” writers have discovered over the years, out of his struggle with the liberating limitations of genre fiction Price was able to achieve a sharp gain in novelistic reach and power.
Clockers (adapted by Price himself into a 1995 Spike Lee film which transferred the action back across the Hudson with unsatisfying results) tests and fine-tunes the routine narrative structure that was thereafter to become Price’s standard: the use of paired protagonists, one white, one black, one a cop and the other a principal in the investigation, their reflected, interwoven storylines presented in alternating chapters as that investigation drives the novel ahead of it like a drug-squad cop shouldering a battering ram. Like all simple structures, this twofold method has proven remarkably elastic and effective, permitting Price to defer the resolution of the crime and the settling of his characters’ fates simply by shifting between points of view, while at the same time allowing him to figure, by means of storytelling, a complex series of interlocking binaries, balancing acts: between fairness and bias, inequality and justice, guilt and obligation.
Price seemed to intuit that the relative unimportance of “mystery” to the police procedural—which often makes no effort to conceal from the reader the identity of the killer—offered the perfect vehicle for his Stoic moral vision of the vanity and ruin of human ambition. For in Clockers and its successors, the solution of the crime under investigation, or at least the nature of the criminal, is always more or less obvious from the start to the reader and to pretty much everyone else, except for the investigating detective. Clockers‘ Rocco Klein, Freedomland‘s Lorenzo Council, Samaritan‘s Nerese Ammons, all stalwarts of the Dempsy Homicide Division, suffer from those classic Price contradictions of character—cynical and willing to believe, longing for an unfettered life and motivated by deep-seated feelings of guilt, remorse, and unpaid obligation. And so for flawed reasons and with doubtful rationales they imagine and pursue solutions to the respective crimes of those novels—two murders and an aggravated assault—that are at once more complicated and simpler than the truth.
Of course a detective is always a stand-in for the author, writers and detectives being more or less synonymous—at least in the view of writers—in their observational habits, their X-ray compulsion to see, in John Cheever’s phrase, “the worm in the bud,” and their permanent sense of detachment, of standing on the other side of the yellow tape. Detective Klein, like Price, is out of his element in New Jersey, a transplanted New Yorker who reverse-commutes to work every day, and his advent introduces a new bearer of shame into the Price catalog: the failed father. From the moment the concept of fatherhood makes its first appearance, with Clockers, as something a man does rather than something that is done to him, it becomes the widest, darkest, and most treacherous of all the countries that lie in the tropic between intentions and actions. Even when they have been with their children, Rocco Klein, Lorenzo Council, and Samaritan‘s guilt-wracked screenwriter Ray Mitchell, caught up in the toils and unknowns of work and substance abuse, have never really been there for them; and in the Dempsy novels Price conjures, from that terrible absence, both physical and emotional, a shadow of the greater absence, or series of absences, that stalks the projects and the Projects of the world.