Richard Price published his first novel, The Wanderers, in 1974, when he was twenty-four. It’s a propulsive, plotless bullet of a book whose story is its teenage characters’ lives. It has much in common with Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr.’s sordid gale force of a novel about dope fiends, transvestites, and brawlers in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, that had come out ten years earlier.
The Wanderers tracks a gang of Italian working-class teenagers and their families in an obscure corner of the Bronx. But what’s most striking is not the immersion in New York’s lower depths that it shares with Last Exit to Brooklyn, but their stylistic affinities—a jerky twitchy street rhythm, staccato in one sentence, bleating in the next, but with an improbable harmony capable of driving the reader on. Price has called his style a marriage of “bebop lyricism to the stolid urban realism that I loved so much.” His apprenticeship appears to have resembled that of a young saxophonist soaking up the phrasing of older players and then turning it into his own high-speed cackle.
The Wanderers is suffused with the racial and ethnic hatreds that were an open fact of New York life well into the 1970s. There were sections of the outer boroughs where Italians, Irish, Puerto Ricans, Jews, and blacks lived atop one another in a poisoned clutch. As much as they detested one another, the various white groups were united in their paralyzing fear of blacks. In the novel’s opening scene a convocation of rival gang leaders meets in a playground to plan an alliance because “we gotta stop them niggers.” For as long he could remember, one of the main characters muses, “his mother had warned him about coons and razors and knives and going into empty elevators with niggers because niggers would just as soon cut your balls off and pawn them for dope or booze as look at you.” They were even more feared than the “lunatic” Irish with their “terrifying, slightly cross-eyed stare of the one-dimensional, semihuman, urban punk killing machine.”
What Richard Wright called “color hate” was the coin of the realm. In one scene, lit with Price’s broad and bleak sympathies, a high school teacher—a former neighborhood head banger and “nigger chaser” himself—goads his class of “punks” and “hand-picked troublemakers” into a racial riot. In a cathartic explosion, black and Italian students roar and hoot at one another until the slurs turn into a kind of ecstatic chant.
“Greaseball,” flies the insult from the black side of the room. “Jungle Bunny,” shoots back from the Italian side. “Swamp Guinea.” “Han’kerchief Head.” “Mountin’ Wop.” “Boogie.” Dago.” “Spearchukka.” By the end of this Tourette’s-like outburst they have become a unified force, venting with more glee than menace the prejudices they have internalized as deeply as the air they breathe.
In his recent fiction Price has moved on to another familiar genre, the crime novel. His writing has grown savvier and more forensically detailed over the years, and the New York rhythm of his prose is tighter, but his central concern—how people survive in an environment of violence and extreme stress—has remained consistent. Lush Life (2008) takes on one of the crucial subjects of contemporary New York: gentrification—that inadequate word used to describe the process by which down-at-the-heels or simply peacefully “overlooked” neighborhoods are burnished and remarketed as urban frontier havens for the monied and (mostly) young.
Poorer residents, with the exception of those who live in the “projects” under the relative protection of the New York City Housing Authority, are hounded out of their homes by landlords seeking to monetize the spiked value of their properties. By law, the new leaseholder of a vacant rent-stabilized apartment pays 20 percent more than the previous tenant. With a quick, slapdash renovation the landlord can increase the rent even further.
A common strategy, among several others, is to hound the new higher-paying tenant out as well (by withholding heat, hot water, or other services), churning new vacancy leases until the rent reaches $2,500. At this point, the apartment will become permanently deregulated and the rent will be set at whatever the market can bear. (The landlord can also apply to deregulate if the rent reaches $2,500 and the current tenants have a combined gross annual income of $200,000 or more.)
These are the economics of contemporary New York. In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to take an example, an economically driven displacement is underway that will probably affect thousands of low-income residents. For the displaced, the city shrinks as the number of affordable places to live grows smaller. The margins of the city are redefined as people are pushed further and further to the outer fringes (or out of the city altogether), where mass transportation and jobs are scarcer.
In Lush Life, Price captures a slice of this process. The novel takes place in 2002, at the intersection of New York City’s poverty-level housing projects and the new upmarket night life near the eastern reaches of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. One of the novel’s chief locations is a Berlin-inflected bar/restaurant called Berkmann’s, modeled on the restaurateur Keith McNally’s eatery Schiller’s on Rivington Street. The owner of Berkmann’s collects artifacts from the neighborhood’s Jewish immigrant sweatshop past, a phenomenon of gentrification whereby a neighborhood’s history is recast as a kind of vintage aesthetic motif. The restaurant itself is a magnet for recreational drug snorters, artists manqué, and determined revelers making the scene.
A black teenager from one of the nearby housing projects shoots dead a white bar crawler during a botched late-night robbery. Price employs the durable structure of a police procedural to investigate both sides of the social divide. The breadth of the novel is impressive, with detailed Dostoevskyian currents—Raskolnikov, in this case, is the seventeen-year-old killer whose fantasy of being feared is matched by his feeling of being a complete nonentity. Without his gun he is nothing, even in his home, where he is treated as a deadweight moocher, good only for babysitting “the hamsters,” as he calls the gaggle of children with whom he shares a bedroom. He keeps a record of his thoughts in the form of rap lyrics in a notebook: “you cant never meet my eye,/cause you know/that Ill blow/and your peoples gonna cry.” With the exception of the cops, almost everyone in the novel is mired in some struggle for artistic expression that, in practical terms, will take him (or her) nowhere.
Both Lush Life and Price’s new novel, The Whites, are crime stories with nearly identical detective-heroes as their moral center and guide. I use the word “hero” in the traditional, American sense of the self-reliant enforcer, ennobled by loneliness and a considerable burden of personal demons. In Lush Life and The Whites they face a set of trials that stretch their moral code to the breaking point, but ultimately (and this is never really in doubt) they act on the side of good.
They see themselves and expect others to see them as protectors, rescuers, seekers of justice who have the additional task of working out aspects of their own dented psyches through the crime cases at hand. They are jaded, spirit-ravaged, and have forborne the ordinary corruptions of their job. Partly because of this, their mission to shield the innocent (or the less guilty, at least) has taken on the quality of an existential necessity.
The Whites and Lush Life also share a serious investigative concern with the number of lives a violent murder scorches as it radiates outward from the shooter to the victim to their families and friends. Every killing engenders an expanding puzzle of disturbance and pain. Stunned and broken, the murdered young man’s father in Lush Life turns into a kind of mad-with-grief oracle who shows up at all hours to deliver inspired, stream-of-consciousness soliloquies.
After the case has been solved, justice has been “portioned out,” and the best of all possible outcomes achieved, the bereaved father discovers that “he would always carry in himself that grueling sensation of waiting: for a tranquil heart, for his son to stop messing around and reappear, for his own death.” The struggle is to recapture a sense of purpose, the ability to care about or even to participate in the business of everyday life.
Billy Graves, the detective-hero of The Whites, is beset by the need to exact some form of victim’s justice. The “whites” of the title is an allusion to Moby Dick, the whale that not only got away but took a limb from his hunter, leaving him unwhole. Each of five cops from a close-knit crew has a personal “white”—usually a person of color—who still roams free, metaphorically thumbing his nose at the one who either botched his arrest or just couldn’t put together enough evidence to nail him.
The five cops cut their teeth together in the Bronx during the 1990s. They christened themselves the Wild Geese, a young, fast, uniformed flock who chased “their prey through backyards and apartments, across rooftops, up and down fire escapes, and into bodies of water.” They “got high off the chase” and “treat[ed] their collars post-arrest like members of a defeated softball team.” Theirs was the kind of bend-the-law, freewheeling crew that had its heyday when Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York.
Their “whites” are bad eggs, indeed. One of them beat a kid to death in a Bronx treehouse and then pinned the murder on his learning-disabled brother. Another, in the days after the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center towers, chased a Pakistani kid into an oncoming car. Twelve, fifteen, and in one case twenty-five years later, the members of the Wild Geese continue to find themselves “so helplessly in the grip of this nonstop black study that they had no choice but to pursue and pursue.”
Billy is the only one of the Wild Geese who is still on the force; the others have retired and are well into their various post-NYPD careers. The father of two young boys, husband to a troubled, cherished second wife, son and caretaker of a demented former NYPD chief of patrol, Billy is buffeted by the competing forces of friendship, loyalty, familial responsibility, and grave personal threat. He is only forty-two, but his “crushed-cellophane gaze” and “world-class insomniac’s posture had once gotten him into a movie at a senior citizen’s discount.”
He is currently the head of Manhattan Night Watch, a grueling graveyard shift charged with fielding felonies between the hours of midnight and 8 am. From this wee-hour perch atop Manhattan’s crime scene, Billy notices that the old nemeses of his fellow Wild Geese are turning up dead, victims of seemingly unrelated crimes. This coincidence, if that’s what it is, sets the rather manic plot into motion.
There are, in real life, cops who become consumed with cases on their watch that have gone cold. One thinks of Baby Hope, the four-year-old girl who, in 1991, was left dead in a picnic cooler on the side of the Henry Hudson Parkway after being sexually abused. At their own expense, detectives from the 34th Precinct in Washington Heights held a funeral for the girl and buried her in a marked grave with no name. They kept photographs of her on their desks next to photographs of their families. It took twenty-two years to identify the child as Anjelica Castillo, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, and to arrest her cousin, who confessed to the murder.
Still, the premise of The Whites feels strained, and strangely false. To question the plausibility of a thriller is to spoil the fun, but the high-concept story is at odds with Price’s deeper impulses as a novelist. Plots like these are tyrannical, they demand to be worked out, and for a riffing realist like Price the process of doing so seems constricting. The Whites is most interesting when Price detours around the exigencies of his plot to describe incidental scenes that crop up as part of Billy’s Night Watch job.
These detours are always informed by Price’s intimate knowledge of the city, his ability to take the measure of the street and his characters’ relationship to it. After a fight between rival teenage crews, Gang Unit officers in windbreakers and high-tops are out “harvesting collars, plasti-cuffing belly-down bangers like bundling wheat.” A walk-on character makes “ends meet as a baby farmer, three subsidized foster kids roaming her overheated living room like cats, although as old and heavy as she was, she could barely rise off the couch.” Formerly oak apartment doors in an elegant Bronx building gone to seed “were now all single slabs of siege-mentality sheet metal.” And when Billy, investigating a crime, knocks on a door, it is answered by “a young, heavily inked Latino, his eyes pink with dope,…in sweatpants and a hairnet.”
The Whites delineates the way certain cops are enmeshed with the poor, duking it out on the bottom of the social ladder, just a step or two above the lower rungs themselves. Like veteran emergency room doctors, they engage in a brutal form of self-protection to separate themselves from the ubiquity of despair. But the separation is never complete—the dance of police, perps, and victims occurs in a kind of hell world that only those who live inside it fully understand. When interrogating a suspect, Billy employs a piercing psychology of ruin, dismantling him from within. His tender, attentive approach put me in mind of skilled Native American hunters who made it their business to know—and love in some measure—the habits of their prey.
The lead detective in Lush Life is “afflicted with Cop’s Eyes; the compulsion to imagine the overlay of the dead wherever he went.” On the other side of the equation are what a police chaplain in Jill Leovy’s recent book Ghettoside, about the murder epidemic in South Central Los Angeles during the 1990s and early 2000s, calls “homicide eyes…the signature response people offered when asked to describe their experiences with violence.” Homicide eyes include a straying look, “an apologetic shake of the head,” a “vanquished silence.” There is a close acquaintance with violent death on both sides of the law. South Central Los Angeles, in Leovy’s words, is “like another city, enclosed in invisible walls. The very air bore a tincture of grief.” The description could just as well apply to the poorest districts of Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, or New York.
Civilians, of course, have their own whites among the police: cops who walk free after committing some form of civilian abuse. They comprise a shifting target—from Officer Daniel Pantaleo after Eric Garner’s death on Staten Island last July to Timothy Loehmann, who shot a twelve-year-old boy while he was playing with a toy gun in Cleveland last November—but the grievance is the same. The primal insult of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri, last August was that his body was left on the street for four hours in the sweltering heat. “It…sent the message from law enforcement that ‘we can do this to you any day, any time, in broad daylight, and there’s nothing you can do about it,’” lamented a committeewoman in Ferguson at the time. To many, next to that unequivocal statement of contempt, the debate over whether Officer Darren Wilson had legal cause to shoot Michael Brown seemed beside the point.
Price is well aware of this. Early in his police career Billy Graves had been a civilian’s white himself. When he was twenty-five, he shot an assailant wielding “an already bloodied lead pipe.” That shooting was deemed to be justified, but the bullet, after passing through its intended target, lodged itself in a ten-year-old boy who was standing nearby, almost killing him. A tabloid reported that Graves was high on cocaine when he pulled the trigger, and for an entire month protesters staked out his house on Staten Island demanding that he be brought to justice. The cocaine allegation was publicly discredited, but it happened to have been true.
Did being high provoke Billy to discharge his weapon too quickly? Price doesn’t say. But it is notable that, while Billy conscientiously tracks the life of the detested criminal who wriggled away on his watch, the fate of the shot ten-year-old is not followed or even mentioned beyond the fact that he had sustained a “near-fatal” wound.
Price has published The Whites under the pseudonym Harry Brandt, and this may exempt it from a certain kind of critical scrutiny. The nom de plume is an alert to readers to alter expectations, to understand that The Whites is a thriller and operates under a different set of literary rules. But Price has expressed misgivings about using it, suggesting that the novel took on an unforeseen complexity that deserves the full backing of his name.
He needn’t regret wearing the mask of Harry Brandt for this novel, transparent as that mask may be. (Price’s name is prominently displayed on the cover.) The machinery of the plot he has devised forces the direction and tone of The Whites. What we end up with is a hybrid—a sharp, grim cops-and-misery story of which Price is a master, mixed with the convolutions of a tale designed for a pulpier package. Lush Life, driven primarily by social and human forces, is a far more thrilling work.
Throughout his career Price has probed the way grinding urban drabness works on his characters’ minds. In The Whites he continues the investigation. As with much of his fiction, after reading it you feel differently about the stream of murder headlines that are part of the newsreel of big-city life. But the constraints he has put on himself in this novel limit its scope.