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In Priceland

The final key element in Price’s reinvention of himself on the left bank of the Hudson can be found in his creation of the character of Strike Dunham, the up-and-coming, down-and-going drug dealer who lies at the heart, or in the ulcerated belly, of Clockers. A lot has been made over the years of Price’s facility and sympathy with black characters, of the persuasiveness of his insight into their lives, styles, speech patterns, and minds. But that says as much about our debased, etiolated notion of what a novelist is, and what a novel can do, as it does about our bizarre if not sinister willingness to believe that skin color, or cultural difference, is proof against the human imagination.

It ought not to strike us as amazing that a novelist as gifted as Price can write black characters (nor, God knows, that he simply dares to write black characters). Price succeeded with Strike—as he would go on to do, turning the tables, with the black detectives in Freedomland and Samaritan—by writing him not as a black character but as a Richard Price character, half-assed, sharp-witted, a dreamer of vague and unremarkable dreams, filled with shame and remorse toward his mother and his straight-arrow brother, cursed with acute insight into his own useless superiority to those around him, too smart for his own good, and too hampered by conscience and scruple to succeed at any of the things his world offers to him as means to success. Things are tough for a Price protagonist, it turns out, on either side of the color line, on both sides of the Hudson.

3.

Now, with his eighth novel, somewhat off-handedly entitled Lush Life,1 Richard Price has come home. In Samaritan, a novel rooted far more confidently and hauntingly in the city’s past than its predecessors, Dempsy, New Jersey, seemed on the verge of cohering into an urban-contemporary version of Yoknapatawpha County, but it has been abandoned (at least for the time being) by its creator in favor of the homeland—not Co-op City, or even Fordham Road, but the deep ancestral spawning pools “on the Delancey.” On New York’s Lower East Side, Richard Price returns to the tenements and stoops and “canyonlike streets with their hanging garden of ancient fire escapes” where his immigrant grandparents first settled, and he finds, like some long-gone traveler of space-time, that in his absence a mutated civilization has taken root amid the ruins of the old.

Lush Life is, more or less, the story of Eric Cash, a would-be writer and actor lingering in the twilight of his aspirations and his youth. Cash, his name perhaps a sprung pun on the author’s, marks the reappearance after a twenty-five-year absence of that old, familiar Price protagonist, still too smart and too conscientious, a skilled observer and reader of people, a little older and nearer to desperation, and a good deal wiser on the subject of tattoos and real estate. When the novel opens, Eric seems to conform to the pattern of the heroes of those early books: perpetually on the verge of making his move (he has taken some upfront money to write a screenplay), too hampered by the fear of embarrassment, of failure, to make it. But unlike Stony De Coco or Kenny Becker in Ladies’ Man, Eric Cash has, crucially, already seized a moment, made a move—opening his own (bad) restaurant in Binghamton, then losing it when he was arrested for selling coke at the bar. Eric has passed beyond potential failure into what might be termed a state of kinetic failure, and now suffers the consequent shame and embarrassment. He lives in the bleak future that for his distant novelistic predecessors remained, in spite of everything, reassuringly bright.

In Lush Life Price also breaks or rearranges a number of the patterns established in the Dempsy novels. He abandons his trademark doubled narrative structure in favor of a looser, more ragged one, possibly derived from television,2 that can accommodate and shuffle among multiple points of view while returning continually to Eric. The classic Price dyad of chief characters is represented in Lush Life by the Lower East Side itself, its authentically grungy streetscape of immigrants and poor people (Asian, Latino, and black) alternating like a point of view, block by block rather than chapter by chapter, with the new overlay of high-rise “add on” condos, fashionable shops and nightspots, and realer-than-real themed restaurants like Café Berkmann, all distressed finish and spotless tile, where Eric works as a manager.

Named, perhaps, for Emma Goldman’s anarchist lover Alexander, Café Berkmann, unlike its manager, is popular and successful, but as the novel opens business is threatened by the appearance, in a bloom of condensation on a glass refrigerator door in the bodega around the corner, of an image of the Virgin Mary. As word spreads of the apparition, the streets around Café Berkmann fill with supplicants and onlookers, blocking the entrance to the restaurant. Harry Steele, Berkmann’s shadily powerful owner and a self-made, somewhat conventionally malevolent-in-his-benignity downtown operator, is displeased by this apparent intrusion of the marvelous into his daily breakfast trade. In a scene that reads like a gentrified, Jewish parody of the scene (“Darryl got to be got”) that sets the plot of Clockers in motion, Harry Steele makes a remark, worthy in its gnomic vagueness of Blofeld or Fu Manchu, which appears, at least to Eric, to give the execution order: the Madonna of Eldridge Street got to be got.

Eric undertakes to perform the hit himself. This is one of Eric Cash’s flaws: he is loyal to a fault, a stand-up guy, a faithful hound in a world in which, as one of the minor characters declares, “people were either cats or dogs.” His loyalty to Harry is intensified, as is so often the case with Price’s characters, by a sense of personal obligation: when Eric flamed out, up in Binghamton, it was his old friend Harry Steele who bailed him out and fixed it so the charges would go away.

Walking around the corner to carry out his mission of freezer-case iconoclasty, Eric runs into the newest hire at Berkmann’s, Ike Marcus, a good-looking, charming, personable bartender who excites Eric’s envy as well as his grudging respect for his undamaged confidence in himself, for his youth and verve and undiminished powers of aspiration. Along the way the co-workers pass the shattered hulk of a century-old synagogue whose roof has just collapsed, and stop to watch as two young brown-skinned boys work to retrieve and excavate scattered sheets and scraps of prayer books.

For a moment Eric and Ike stand by the ruins, listening to the metaphoric wind whistle through their own and Price’s and New York’s Jewish past. When they reach the bodega, crowded with pilgrims, Eric’s nerve fails him, and so Ike steps up, without apparent scruple or hesitation, to open the refrigerator door and let an influx of warm air take care of the supposed miracle.

Price is characteristically sly on the veracity of the image—“It was kind of a stretch,” Eric thinks of the image’s supposed resemblance to the Mother of God—but this apparently meaningless act of wiping out a scattering of waterdrops on glass leads Price to an irony as profound as any of his reflections on the conjunction of old and new New York: things can kill you even if you don’t believe in them. That night, as Ike is helping a drunken college buddy make it home to his building on Eldridge Street, with Eric tagging along, a couple of muggers come out of the shadows, one of them carrying a gun. (We take them, though Eric does not, for the boys who were helping to salvage the ruined synagogue.) Eric obediently hands over his wallet; the drunk friend subsides into a stupor; but Ike Marcus gets “chesty,” confronting their assailants with the brave and foolhardy formula “Not tonight, my man.” The gun goes off, Ike is fatally shot, and for the second time that day Eric is forced to confront his own cowardice, fleeing into the stairwell of a nearby apartment building, unable even to summon the nerve to call 911.

Now Price’s old novelistic ally, the guilty conscience, steps forward to get the novel rolling. When questioned by the two detectives assigned to the Marcus murder, Eric fumbles, unable to own up to his failure, his cowardly flight in the face of danger. So he tells a story that is not entirely true, then changes his story in the retelling. To the trained ear of the detectives—and in Richard Price’s work, all detectives have ears as gifted as his own—both Eric Cash and his story ring false. In addition, there is some (mistaken) eyewitness testimony that seems to further inculpate Eric.

So one of the investigators, a brutally gentle Latina detective named Yolonda Bello, makes a move common among Richard Price’s policemen, and decides that Eric’s factual, prosaic story of muggers and misplaced bravado cannot possibly be the truth. With the entire command structure of the NYPD pushing Yolonda and her partner, Matty Clark (who moonlights as security, and occasionally gets laid, at Lush Life), to hurry up, pin the murder on someone, and shut the thing down, Eric becomes the leading suspect. Clark and Bello subject him to relentless interrogation, trying to force a confession. But although during that brutal span they reduce him, in Eric’s phrase, to “a bug,” Eric, armored in his feckless suit of cowardice and inaction, gifted with that canine loyalty which turns out, in the end, to extend even to himself, somehow manages to hold out against their stratagems and bullying; though by the end of the session he has become the novel’s second great ruin.

Detective Clark correctly interprets Eric’s resistance to their harsh questioning as the proof, the burnt stub, of Eric’s innocence, and the rest of the novel is taken up, with ever-increasing straightforwardness, by the pursuit of the actual killer and by Matty Clark’s simultaneous efforts to control Ike’s wildly grieving father, Billy, to reclaim the now badly damaged Eric Cash as a critical witness, and—incidentally—to find some way of facing up to the legacy of his own failure as a father, a legacy which, in the form of his teenaged son, literally comes home to roost. In the end the innocent are duly punished along with the guilty—in the case of the murderer, one and the same—and the city renews its steadfast and faithless promise to Eric, who has no choice but to believe it, and prepare, once again, to make his move.

4.

Lush Life is a good, worthwhile, and in many ways satisfying novel. No matter how routinely and highly praised it may be, Price’s ear for dialogue, his ability to capture and reproduce the rhythm, tone, and evanescent vocabulary of urban life, cannot be overpraised: with all due respect to Elmore Leonard, Price is our best, one of the best writers of dialogue in the history of American literature. Resorting with miraculous infrequency to the use of dialect spellings and other orthographical tricks, Price gets his characters’ words to convey subtle nuances of class, occupation, education, even geographical gradations of neighborhood, while also using them as a powerful vehicle for the transmission, in fits and starts, evasions and doublings back, of their interior lives. He is a perfect magpie for slang, and like its predecessors this novel is rich in fascinating bits of law-enforcement and street-criminal argot.

Late in the novel, two members of Price’s Quality of Life Task Force, a squad of plainclothes who in their bogus taxicab patrol the Lower East Side and the novel itself like meaty Furies with flattop haircuts, apprehend one of the principals in the Marcus murder, a stick-up artist named Little Dap. The kid carries in his wallet a trophy from one of his muggings: a check made out by the cashless victim for a hundred dollars, drawn on a bank in Traverse City, Michigan:

Hey, you jux3 someone from out of state? That’s a guideline felony.”

A what?”

Classical guideline felony.”

Plus this whole area is historically landmarked,” Lugo reminding Daley, “which makes it…”

Pre-indicted.”

As in federal.”

And federal crime…”

Means federal time.”

The fuck! It’s just a check, man, I ain’t even cashed it!”

They’ll just take him away from us, the Feds.”

I hate those pricks, everybody’s bin Laden to them. Won’t even listen to us.”

I don’t feel too good,” Little Dap slurred.

You’re kidding me.”

Where am I?” Lolling his head, then resting on the bars.

About two inches from a supermax.”

By now Price has the police procedural down cold, both in his technical knowledge of the workings of the criminal justice system and in his control over pacing and point of view, and Lush Life reads swiftly, though it is not free of the investigative longueurs, the doubtless accurate but tedious pursuits of false leads, mistaken hunches, and bad information, that plague both Clockers and Freedomland. His prose has never felt more fluid, his plotting is spry, and later scenes spin by in a monte-dealer whirl before you realize that you have just been had with another unlikely (or perhaps likely but no less dissatisfying) coincidence.

Price makes a fascinating though strangely unaffecting foray into the hidden world of Chinese immigrant life, and if the reader has ever wondered how to shave the tips of one’s restaurant employees, Price is ready with detailed and helpful instructions. The portrayal of the killer, yet another angry, abandoned child of the projects, seems effortless, and moving. Apart from the moment when he pulls the trigger—and all the power of Richard Price’s talent for characterization lies coiled inside those words “apart from”—the most telling aspect of the young killer’s personality is the helpless, reflexive tenderness and diligence with which he takes care of his “hamsters,” the three young ex-stepsiblings with whom the serial injustices of his life have burdened him.

And yet like the Virgin on the glass, Lush Life reads like a kind of condensation or residue of a Richard Price novel, of all Richard Price novels: of Freedomland‘s dubious, race-tainted accusation and the subsequent “media shitstorm” which, in Lush Life as in the earlier novel, verges disappointingly on Tom Wolfe-esque satire, especially in Price’s recounting of the outrageous boho posturing of Ike’s downtown friends at his televised memorial service. In sidling up with shocking intimacy to a lost and longing young black criminal, Lush Life rivals, in a less epic way, Price’s achievement of Strike Dunham in Clockers. Late in the novel, Eric pursues a drug deal so foolish that it strains credulity until the moment when he receives a savage beating, one that leaves him lying bloody on the sidewalk, thinking “This’ll do,” and suddenly we feel the ghost of Samaritan, whose Ray Mitchell (Price’s most appealing protagonist) endures a near-fatal assault and its aftermath with silent complicity because he feels it to have been well deserved.

Lush Life features not one but a pair of guilt-ridden and ineffectual fathers who abandoned or failed their children: the grief-maddened but otherwise vague Billy Marcus, and Matty Clark. There is the story of an investigation nearly spoiled by the blindness of a detective to the obvious truth. And then there is the all-but-vanished sound of pop and soul music, once an integral part of the Price style and milieu, here reduced to a weird phantom echo: “a Chinese cover of Roy Orbison’s ‘Dream Baby.’”

A number of reviewers have focused on the novel’s nature and merit as an index of the ironies of contemporary Manhattan redevelopment. In Lush Life, cops taking a cigarette break talk housing prices; they see the residents of the projects not as citizens or even as scum but merely as a form of derelict property depressing the market, human ruins ripe for condemnation.

But what is most remarkable about Lush Life, finally, is not the astuteness of its social critique. Nor is it the resemblance of the book, or of the experience of reading it, as other critics have claimed, to watching a taut policier or a season of The Wire, a resemblance which, to the extent that it exists, constitutes one of the novel’s flaws, thinning some of the scenes down to long passages of barely attributed dialogue, truncating others to the point that they resemble short, descriptive master shots in a screenplay.

Price’s greatness has never been limited, as I fear the praise of him often implies, to his dialogue. In the Dempsy novels, he displays a mastery of interior portraiture, of the Tolstoyan free indirect style, that film can’t even begin to approximate, and such passages are too rare in Lush Life, leaving a number of the characterizations, in particular that of Eric Cash, feeling less rich than those found in the previous novels. The strength—and perhaps as well, in true Price fashion, the weakness—of Lush Life lies in the use that Price makes, throughout the novel, of the idea of the survival of the past, as first figured in the collapsed synagogue that Ike and Eric stop to check out, on their way to wipe away the miraculous vapor on the refrigerator door.

Giant ruins have long figured in Price’s work, standing mute witness to failed promises, lost ideals, and the self-cannibalization of inner-city America. There is a vast ruined public hospital in Clockers, ridden with junkies and scrap-metal scavengers, and in Samaritan an aborted Dempsy waterfront development, overgrown and swampy, self-fulfillingly advertised as Little Venice. Freedomland approaches the positively Ballardesque in its superabundance of ruination: a county jail, a mental hospital, and most portentously Freedomtown, the second-rate Dempsy version of the old New York City theme park, itself long since torn down (and replaced by the towers of Co-op City), to which the novel’s title alludes. Price’s Dempsy is a huge wreck, its long boulevards lined with shuttered storefronts and boarded-up houses, haunted by the flickering shades of dopeslingers and buyers and the beams of police cruiser “misery lights.” Dempsy is its own ghost.

Lush Life takes this longstanding motif and, with a thrilling twist, makes it the thematic center of the novel. “When [Eric] had first moved down here eight years ago, he was seized with the notion of the Lower East Side as haunted.” This is, in a sense, the mission statement of Lush Life: to provide an account of life in the old neighborhood as members of the generation descended from those immigrants who long ago, with a grateful shudder, escaped this haunted land come traipsing back, bringing shade-grown coffee, fetishistic cocktails, and a hollowness in their souls that at one time Price the novelist might have diagnosed as a longing for escape or the unattainable future but which now seems to figure in his thinking as an unassuageable longing for the past; for somebody’s, anybody’s past.

Lush Life takes the ruins imagery of the earlier novels, flips it around, and comes up with a vision that in its way is as dark as that of Freedomland. For here on the Lower East Side the grand promises made to Ike’s and Eric’s grandparents were kept, the ideals, however imperfectly, attained, the escape effected. And yet here are Ike and Eric and their generation, come back as though to search among the ruins, like those boys salvaging prayer books, for something unnamable that was lost.

Price seems to be suggesting here that a promise kept can feel as futile as a promise that is betrayed. In Lush Life, totems and trinkets of Lower East Side history are salvaged and polished and converted to restaurant decor; original Jacob Riis photographic plates—portraits of suffering, misery, penury—are sold as trendy collectibles; and the ironic inscription carved into a floor joist by some long-dead nineteenth-century cellar-dwelling greenhorn—“Goldeneh Medina,” City of Gold, in Price’s translation—touches some place deep in the cellar of Eric Cash’s irony-hardened twenty-first-century emotions.

At the end of the novel this characteristic postmodern commingling of irony and yearning finds its apotheosis in the construction, within the climate-controlled hush of an Atlantic City megacasino, under the watchful eye-in-the-sky of Security, of “Yidland,” part of a scale-model, sanitized theme-park reproduction of the Lower East Side, complete with a Berkmann’s of its own, the replica of a replica. If Lush Life reads, at times, like a kind of “Priceland,” offering up to the reader, in a tightly controlled performance, ghostly echoes of the masterpieces that preceded it, perhaps that has less to do with any fault of Price’s than of the city that, in ceaselessly remaking itself, in endlessly referring to itself, betrays everyone and everything but the irony and accuracy of those Yiddish words, carved into the blackened beam of a cellar apartment, words that could easily have served as the title of this fine novel: City of Gold.

  1. 1

    In the novel it’s the name of a chic, members-only bar notable chiefly for being the only place on the Lower East Side in which one of the novel’s main characters can reliably, at the moment, get laid.

  2. 2

    Price was a regular writer for the HBO series The Wire, whose creator, David Simon, has publicly and somewhat recursively acknowledged the influence of Clockers on the original conception of the show.

  3. 3

    To jux, as in “I’m going to jux me a head,” a synonym for mugging, perhaps a corruption of “to adjust.”

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