Bad Mothers and Alcoholic Cops: Freedomland , by Richard Price

Freedomland , by Richard Price. Broadway Books, 546 pages, $35.

Stories about the urban poor, these days, are too often left to television cop shows and sensational segments of magazine shows. Richard Price is one of the few American novelists who dares to explore the realm, and one of the handful who manage to get it right. With Clockers , his last, brilliant novel about the life of an inner-city drug dealer, he unveiled a world hidden from most readers by a series of social, economic and cultural barriers. And while simultaneously creating a classic crime thriller, he managed to provide a wrenching, at times Dostoyevskian examination of the issues surrounding modern-day crime and punishment.

No surprise then, that with his new novel, Freedomland , Mr. Price once again returns to the downtrodden fictional turf of Dempsy, N.J. Unlike Clockers , however, Freedomland is no cliffhanger. Though he circles his narrative around a similarly central unsolved crime, this time he lets us all know, more or less, what the outcome will be almost from the first page, when Brenda Martin, a white, 32-year-old single mother, walks through the notorious Armstrong housing project and into a hospital emergency room, her hands held out in front of her in a “cupped bloody dazzle.” Clearly frightened and in shock, Brenda initially refuses to give up her story, then raises everyone’s suspicions when she finally announces that she has been carjacked by a strange black man, adding that her son, 4 years old and sick, was asleep in the back seat of the car at the time.

Told from the alternating point of views of Lorenzo Council, an African-American detective, born and bred in Armstrong, and Jesse Haus, a young white reporter who latches onto the story in the hope of an exclusive, Freedomland outlines the events of the following three-day search for Brenda’s little boy. Ever more desperately, one character after another begs, pleads, bullies, cajoles and teases Brenda into giving a realistic version of the events that led to her son’s disappearance. Brenda, however, is too emotionally overloaded to respond. Well meaning but fundamentally incompetent, she seems to have been incapable of looking after herself even before her child so mysteriously disappeared. Now, under pressure and unable to sleep, she keeps the world at bay by compulsively listening to old blues on a borrowed Walkman and falls deeper and deeper into reminiscences of her own troubled past. Meanwhile, the world around her-the white ethnic town where she grew up and the predominantly black housing project where she worked as a child-care attendant, and where she insists her baby was kidnapped-begin to unravel.

With his genius for detail, Mr. Price conjures up both fraught and claustrophobically stagnant communities with rare, humane accuracy. There are the mandatory dysfunctional elevators in the Armstrong projects, of course, and the long corridors smelling of urine and stale cigarette smoke. But there are also the water sprinkler systems that make up “the Armstrong Beach Club,” the “Lamb Pen” where most of the project’s senior citizens are housed, well-tended day care centers, and more than a handful of charming, if wayward, young inhabitants struggling to find a place in the world.

Still, the neighboring town of Gannon, “a city of predominantly blue-collar white Catholic families [who] had been living there since the end of the Civil War,” is so fearful of invasion from “Darktown” that a 24-hour police patrol cruises the border to “keep our city clean.” In response, the children of Armstrong have long been warned to stay out of Gannon because, as one resident says: “[T]hose cops, they don’t play, and if you pull anything cute out there they’re gonna come back in here after you.” Brenda’s accusation of an Armstrong black man is all it takes to transform such uneasy and mutual racial distrust into outright and equally mutual rage. When Gannon’s mostly white police force surrounds the projects and announces that no one will be allowed in or out until the child is found, tensions soar. Rallies are held, protests organized, and, at night, fires are set by frustrated kids looking for some kind of release.

But beneath all the intricate social portraiture, Mr. Price seems to be, once again, most interested in the quieter issues of personal isolation, emotional dislocation and regret. Council is a black cop working for the white status quo, which has him permanently straddling a fence that is much too high to be comfortable. But he is also a recovering drunk whose marriage is failing and whose parenting skills are such that one of his kids is in jail for armed robbery, while the other, a primary school teacher, refuses even to speak to him. The reporter, Jesse Haus, is similarly haunted by her own dislocated past as a “red-diaper” kid of naïve and idealistic Trotskyite parents. And Brenda Martin herself, an emotional refugee from Gannon, has had such a tumultuous past that it’s a wonder she’s survived for so long. Turning first to drugs, then to a cult, her fumbled attempts at constructing a life have all come to naught, and in desperation she finally turned to a job in the predominantly black Armstrong day-care center because, “They’re the other , they’re … It’s safe to care for them, it’s safe to put out for them because, because they’re not quite real to me.”

Conflicts like these can work both ways, of course. Pinpointed in individuals, thwarted personal ambition, racial guilt and the blindness that necessarily follows it naturally lend themselves to the broader canvases of the two towns themselves. And as Brenda continues to sink into her past, oblivious to the chaos her accusations are causing, a series of racial misunderstandings and politically motivated actions and counteractions propel the narrative forward and expose some of the most intricate complexities of race in urban America.

Of course, such issues are what this book is all about. Though Mr. Price plays with elements of the traditional thriller genre-the tough, hardball dialogue and punchy pacing in particular-it is clear from the beginning that he is more interested in exploring the worlds that lurk behind the crime than in the crime itself. His meticulous renderings of so many, usually ignored, peripheral characters make it particularly unsettling that he allowed other bit players to sink into stereotype: there is the burly, wrestler-hairdo’d, white police officer, quick to fly off the handle and betray his innate dislike of blacks; the decent white cop, Bump, whose very emotional solidity seems to place him outside of the book’s central focus; a righteous black preacher; a sexy nurse; a regretful, drug-addicted father; and an eternally ravenous press corps, ever eager to relay the depressing developments to a bloodthirsty American public.

Even the reporter, Jesse Haus, veers dangerously close to becoming a tired rerun of figures from less ambitious, less intelligent works. In the case of a young woman who has no life outside of her job, Mr. Price repeatedly explains how she is forced to fall back on the reassuringly vivid lives of her clients for sustenance. But neither her isolation nor her passion for her work are ever quite convincing, and the endless repetition of both tends to get in the way of rest of the book.

This is not to say that the intimate portrait of Brenda Martin doesn’t do for working-class white Catholics what Clockers did for urban black youth. Mr. Price’s portrayal of her psychic unraveling and suffocating sense of worthlessness is disarmingly touching. Her frenzied desperation, combined with Detective Council’s mounting and impotent rage, permeates the book like the sweltering summer heat that cloaks the three days and sleepless nights that the narrative itself is trapped in. Once again, Mr. Price gives dazzling life to those otherwise all too often relegated to the half-hour freak segments on prime-time TV.