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By (February 1, 2008) No Comment

Lush Life

by Richard Price
FSG, 2008
In one of his by then customary attacks on the infantilizing influence of Hollywood on American letters, Edmund Wilson made a parenthetical remark that indicated that the scope of his prejudices extended beyond the studio lots to include virtually the entire West Coast. “It is a question how much the movies themselves have been affected by the California atmosphere,” Wilson wrote. “Might they not have been a little more interesting under the stress of affairs in the East?”

Wilson’s prejudices were no doubt deep-seated and personal. In 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West had died in consecutive days, and Wilson was pretty well convinced that Los Angeles had played a part in killing them. Moreover, he does not seem to have ever taken film-making seriously as an art form. (One of his last journal entries contains a terse dismissal of The Godfather and The French Connection: “Bang bang.”) Nevertheless, even today there is no escaping the suspicion that there is something debilitating about the hazy, glazed atmosphere of Southern California, where, as some wit put it, palm trees grow on the brain.

That books birthed in this climate would suffer from the “movie forshortenings” and “Hollywood lightheadedness” Wilson deprecated seems all the more probable considering that the standard subject of Los Angeles novels is the soul-snatching vapidity of the setting. In contemporary fiction, only Bruce Wagner—whose 2007 novel Memorial is a harrowing masterpiece—has been able to transcend the cheap irony that derives from parodying the force to which one has already sold out. Today, even writers who maintain a geographical detachment from Hollywood can fall prey to studio pressure. The talented Scott Smith utterly kiboshed the second half of his otherwise superb thriller The Ruins with an eye to pleasing Ben Stiller, who optioned the book before Smith even published it; and readers of Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winner Empire Falls can be excused for suspecting that the awful character of Max Roby was tailored to provide a plummy role for Paul Newman.

There is precisely nothing that can be done about this conflict of interest. Insisting that writers turn their backs on the hanging fruit of DreamWorks and United Artists is like preaching abstinence to high schoolers or pacifism to presidents, and the crux in this case is purely financial. An upper-list novelist, if he’s lucky, might take in something like $40,000 for a book that required one to eight years of difficult composition. A screen adaptation—even an original screenplay—rarely takes six months to create and will garner from big studios something in the ballpark of $500,000.

Since there’s no arguing with these figures, many writers have become contortionists with their creative time, apportioning certain months to lucrative hackwork and rationing the remains for artistic endeavors. If, to the pure-minded, the approach seems so pragmatic as to be antithetical to artistry (the pure-minded might forget such things as mortgages and car insurance, but bill collectors never do), it finds some justification in the work of Richard Price, who, perhaps more successfully than any current novelist, has been able to divide his time between both worlds and uphold, in his own words, a “separation of church and state.” Little more proof is needed than Price’s output in the early-1990s, which had room for screenplays and script-doctoring (during that time he wrote Mad Dog and Glory and co-wrote the screenplay for the De Niro vehicle Night and the City) as well as the 1992 novel Clockers, an incredible, unrelenting work of urban naturalism worthy to share a shelf with McTeague, Native Son, and City of Night, and which should be on every high school reading list in the country.

Price, of course, is a New Yorker (that he grew up in a Bronx housing project is a fact his publicists will never tire of trumpeting) and his novels are menacing embodiments of the “stress of affairs of the East,” so it’s certain he has benefited from the globalization of Hollywood that’s largely due to advances in travel and communication. And most recently, Price has benefited from the rise in complexity of TV dramas, a phenomenon firmly located on the East Coast. Over the past four years, Price has been a writer for the HBO’s The Wire, a series it’s currently popular to call the best television show in history. And now, as The Wire nears its series finale, Price presents his new novel Lush Life.

Despite his considerable reputation as a novelist, it’s no good running away from the likelihood that Lush Life is going to be read as a kind of Director’s Cut supplement to The Wire: not only is there superficially a great deal in the book to justify the connection, there is also a sense that Price is explicitly attempting in Lush Life to achieve the layered sweep of atmosphere and character for which the TV show is revered. Writing for The Wire is not like doctoring Hollywood scripts, and the prudent wall of separation bricked up to protect his novels seems in this case to have been breached. Price has said of the show that “it’s as close to a novel as anything on TV,” and Lush Life has pretty clearly drawn inspiration from it.

(Which suggests that maybe there is something particular about the medium of television that is salutary to the novelist kept otherwise in solitude. Writing from an earlier Golden Age fifty years ago, Gore Vidal commented, “As for the world of television, the notable characteristics are youth and enthusiasm…. There is none of the bored cynicism one often finds in Hollywood studios, nor any of the rapacity and bad temper endemic to the theater in New York.” Television writers, Vidal observed, possess “a very real sense of honor.”)

Lush Life takes place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the attraction of the setting is immediately identifiable (Price’s previous books are set in either the Bronx or a fictional New Jersey ghetto called Dempsy). The Lower East Side has been a turbulent melting pot ever since it’s been considered lower than anything else, and the present-day gentrification of the district is simply another evolution in its ongoing ethnic makeover—or what Price calls its “ethnohistorical mix ‘n’ match.”

Price is indeed alert to his setting’s history: in his very first appearance, the novel’s central character, a thirty-something aspiring actor named Eric Cash (yes, I know—as a friend commented, does he have a brother named Frankie Overdose?), is haunted by his neighborhood’s “traces of the nineteenth-century Yiddish boomtown.” Cash works at a trendy restaurant called Café Berkmann that is built literally on top of a coal cellar that Jacob Riis photographed when it was a hearthside for some of the wretched other half. (And the name of the restaurant is of course a chic nod to Alexander Berkmann, the anarchist who tried to assassinate Henry Clay Frick in 1892. Price has always had a keen eye for ironic place-names, from his 1998 novel Freedomland to Lush Life itself, which is the name of a seamy little bar.) Cash’s boss lives in a spacious apartment that was formerly a synagogue. Throughout Lush Life the strata of the past are cross-sectioned with the diverse makeup of the current age.

That makeup is a tumble of blacks, Latinos, Arabs, Chinese, Ashkenazi Jews, and, most recently arrived, moneyed whites buying conversion apartments or renting prettified dives while in grad school. Humans have a genius for division, and even in a small neighborhood most of these groups know how to stay pretty well clear of each other—but Price is interested in the inevitable intersections. One night, Eric and two white acquaintances go out drinking. On the way home, they’re accosted by two teenagers, one black and one Latino, from a nearby housing project. When one of the white men resists the muggers, he’s shot to death.

So in Lush Life Price returns to the strategy he’s used effectively in every one of his mature novels. It’s a trick for writers with little gift for weaving intricate plots, most enduringly employed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: start with a crime, preferably a murder, and don’t resolve that crime until the end of the book. In the meantime, so long as you are always pointing back to the crime and teasing toward the resolution, do whatever you like—chase diversions, rig up entertaining set pieces, indulge in preoccupations, tilt at windmills. Price, of course, is not a religious fanatic, so it’s here that his and Dostoyevsky’s novels part ways (although Dostoyevsky, who stated that there can be “no deep thought without winter,” presumably wouldn’t have chosen to work in Burbank either). Price’s fixations are sociological—final truth is not reached by revelation but police procedure, the block-by-block canvassing of the precinct, and most of all the interrogation.

Matty Clark is the primary detective on this case and he, with his partner Yolonda Bello, bunglingly begin by following a misplaced hunch and charging Eric with the murder. Eric is speedily exonerated, but he is so devastated by the interrogation—“You are a self-centered, self-pitying, cowardly, envious, resentful, failed-ass career waiter. That’s your everyday jacket,” Matty says in a last push to crack his defenses—that he refuses to help the police identify the real shooter. Left on their own, Matty and Yolonda grope around on unpromising leads in Chinatown and the Lemlich Housing Projects. The investigation is further complicated when the murder victim’s father appears and desperately tries to solve the case on his own, eventually leaking compromising information to a beat reporter. Flirtations are sparked and snuffed out, more crimes are committed, a public memorial is planned, and Eric continues to hide from his responsibility to aid the investigation, trying vainly to slink back into the normal flow of his life.

We also follow the day-to-day activities of Tristan, a 17-year-old Puerto Rican who was involved in the shooting. Tristan is a street-corner cipher who has no rap sheet and hardly ever speaks, so he can roam through the Lower East Side harboring the secret of his part in the murder without arousing suspicion. Price exploits Tristan’s invisibility by having him continually cross paths with the other characters affected by the crime, including Yolonda and, most provocatively, the murder victim’s sister, who is the same age as him. At one point Tristan even runs into Eric, who is so wrapped up in self-pity that he doesn’t recognize the boy he saw shoot his friend:

The other guy [Eric] looked at [Tristan] again, and for a second the recognition was in his eyes, Tristan’s belly whooping, but just as quickly the light went out, the guy frowning back down at the desk.

On his way out past the receptionist, it was all Tristan could do not to bust out grinning. First that lady detective last night, now this dude. He had always thought of himself as invisible to others but had never thought it before as a superpower.

All this narrative canvassing is enjoyable not only because of the suspense hanging over the conclusion of the investigation (only a mild suspense in this case, since the reader already knows what happened), but because of Price’s great ear for dialogue. Most of the drama of Lush Life unfolds in conversation, whether in the interrogation room or on the street. Early on, for instance, this exchange occurs between an undercover officer and a Latino man who has been pulled over ostensibly because he used his turn signals, which evidently constitutes suspicious behavior:

“All serious, Officer, and no disrespect intended, maybe I can learn something here, but what did I do?”
“Primary, you have neon trim on your plates.”
“Hey, I didn’t put it there. This my sister’s whip.”
“Secondary, your windows are too dark.”
“I told her about that.”
“Tertiary, you crossed a solid yellow.”
“To get around a double-parked car.”
“Quadrary, you’re sitting by a hydrant.”
“That’s ‘cause you just pulled me over.”

With a forceful but lumbering prose style, dialogue—and to a lesser extent interior monologue—is also Price’s most reliable means of etching the contours of characters; some of the distinctions in the speech of the varied cast are directly related to race or age, but mostly the verbal tics describe personality. Price is not simply a tape recorder of different modes of slang. His greatest talent in dialogue is in accent and intonation—he can subtly register the tones of fear, agitation, bullying, or elation, and when he is at his best, each emotion then describes a deeper trait in the speaker.

Speech can also reveal interesting parallels. When Matty is dressing down Eric in the interrogation room, he takes a goading, hectoring tone punctuated by sudden threateningly emphasized words:

“Well, let me tell you something…. If I was, like you claim to be, an innocent man? Right about now I’d be hopping around this fucking room like my ass was on fire. Any innocent person would. That would be the natural instinctual reaction. But you’ve been sitting here all morning, you’re coming off a little bored, a little depressed, a little nervous. It’s like you’re at the dentist’s office. You went to sleep for Christ’s sakes. In twenty years, I have never seen an innocent man just rack out like that. Twenty, years. Never.”

Back as a maître d’ at Café Berkmann, Eric delivers a similarly articulated rant to a new bartender:

“Let me tell you something. This right here isn’t about researching your next role. It’s a job. In fact, we’re paying you. And I’m gonna tell you something else. It’s proactive. Customers don’t come to a bar for the drinks, they come for the bartender. Any bartender worth a shit knows this, but you, you stand there, got a one-word answer for everything: huh, uh, duh, yes, no, maybe. You make people feel like losers, like they’re your punishment from a jealous God or something. I swear, Cleveland?” Nodding to the Rastahead at the far end now. “The guy makes a martini like he’s got hooks for hands, but he’s twice the bartender you are because he works it. Everybody’s a regular with that guy, and he never stops moving, never comes off like this gig is some demeaning station of the cross on his way to the Obies. I mean, watching the two of you back here tonight? It’s like a blur and a boulder. And to be honest, right now even with the traffic the way it is, I’d rather cash you out on the spot, have him work a solo, or draft one of the waiters or even come back there myself than let you pull this ‘I’d rather be in rehearsals’ crap ten more minutes, you hear me?”

But as much as these excerpts speak to a kinship between Matty and Eric, they also hint at an indistinctness that is Lush Life’s biggest deficiency. Price stretches across the Lower East Side but in doing so spreads himself too thin. The brief, pleasingly readable scenes shuffle so quickly past that the characters have little chance to exist in ways not directly related to the central murder. Here, only two characters emerge as real people. The first is Yolonda, the “universal mother” of the homicide department, who can extract confessions from hardened hoodlums by making them terrified of disappointing her. In one extraordinary scene, a young man falsely confesses to murder because he wants to help Yolonda’s career.

Tristan is the second great character and also the bleakest that Price has ever conceived. Tristan is an abused, emotionally stunted introvert who has never enjoyed a shred of friendship or guidance. His only human interaction comes from delivering drugs or tagging along on stick-ups and his only creative outlet is writing naively vicious rap lyrics. As Yolonda ultimately puts it, he’s been “broken so many times there [is] nothing left to break.” It’s a damning, heartbreaking portrayal, and Price gives it with no leniency.

The rest of the ensemble cast, however, tends either to blend into the busy background or be absorbed by the network-friendly world of police activity. Though they’re all well done, too many scenes are dulled down by their familiarity with primetime cop dramas—waking up the chief at dawn to get a weapons test authorization, coping with the hysterical survivors of the deceased, fending away feckless newspapermen. With Clockers and Samaritan (2003), Price created novels whose originality and psychological directness can’t be entirely reproduced in any other form (as the woeful film adaptation of Clockers demonstrates). In Lush Life he tries for an effect that The Wire has had some forty hours of screen time to establish, and as a result is a diminishment from previous books, a slight subjection of an author’s personal vision to that of a successful team’s.

But even though there is some disappointing artistic streamlining in Lush Life, themes recurrent to Price’s novels appear again in new guises; they are important to both an understanding of his books and of city life in general, so they merit some investigation.

“I react well to shame,” Ray Mitchell says in Samaritan. Ray has returned to Dempsy to live near the housing projects he grew up in after a lucrative stint in Los Angeles (as, in fact, a television writer), and his admission is not strictly true. In fact, he reacts irrationally to shame: his impulse is to give away fistfuls of money to any of his less fortunate friends who hint at wanting it. And after his self-conscious glad-handing inspires someone to crack his skull with a vase, shame prevents him from identifying the attacker to the police.

Shame is also a dominant emotion in Price’s youthful novels from the 1970s, such as The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers. These raggedly incomplete but powerful books feature teenagers in holding patterns before adulthood who are leerily aware of the grim array of actual adults they’re beholden to—mostly washed up drunks and wife-beaters. Stony, in Bloodbrothers, for instance, yearns to do something noble with his future but is bound by blood ties to his father’s construction company. Stony and the former gang members of The Wanderers are paralyzed by the recognition of the kind of deadbeats they’re on track to becoming, and whole chapters are given over to anguished monologues in which they pour out to friends their fears and hidden dreams.

Thirty years later, paralysis and anguished monologues are major contributions of Ray Mitchell to Samaritan and Eric Cash to Lush Life. Certainly, on one hand this is a little grating; Price not only indulges these young white men in their wallowing, but abets it with moments of shrieky sentimentality in his prose. (Only when he’s occupying the minds of white men does his prose become clouded or strained by emotion. Strike, the black drug dealer so brilliantly brought to life in Clockers, is just as sensitive and disenchanted as the white characters, but, due entirely to circumstance, his nervous acquiescence leads him deeper into a world of crime, not one of passive isolation.)

The inaction of Ray and Eric, however, is now something more than teenage indecision. Both are minorities in their neighborhoods. In a curious reversal, they are the outsiders; and that they have more money, better job opportunities, and no trouble from police harassment only reinforces their sense of alienation. Ray tries to become part of his society with half-baked fits of charity—he wants desperately to “make a dent” but doesn’t know how to do it. Eric shields himself from his isolation by fixing on a romanticized vision of nineteenth-century Yiddish community. He resents the new white interlopers but has no connection at all with his longstanding black and Latino neighbors.

The police in these books may sometimes feel like outsiders too as they comb the projects for drugs, guns, and murder suspects—In Clockers, Detective Rocco Klein calls his unit “the army of occupation”—but their involvement is daily and committed, actual rather than theoretical. Ironically, it is the same for the drug pushers. In Price’s cities, police and criminals are the only people who feel comfortable routinely crossing racial borders. They live the least self-consciously, secure in their roles. Crime and punishment remain the most natural social processes of the city.

That fact should serve as a bracing caution to gentrifying New Yorkers especially, who have the blithely colonizing attitude that the beneficent presence of a privileged class will transform a neighborhood from its entrenched ways of life. Eric Cash’s mistake is to think that he can live in a crime-ridden place and yet be unaffected by crime because of his race. That explains the strange masochism Price’s white outsiders ultimately display. They live in violent places—deluded idealism and deluded isolation are both bound to be shattered by that violence, and once they understand this they seem to urge catastrophe on themselves as a kind of expiation to a life of self-entitlement. Ray Mitchell almost delights in getting conned out of his money by a hopeless lowlife. In Lush Life, Eric’s isolation ends only when he is assaulted for a second time, during a reckless drug deal. As he’s being beaten he thinks, “This’ll do.”

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.