The New York Fiction of Richard Price: These Guys Sure Can Talk

LUSH LIFEBy Richard Price Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 455 pages, $26 Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter Sign Up Thank

LUSH LIFE
By Richard Price
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 455 pages, $26

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Part rubbernecker, part moralist, part mimic, novelist Richard Price would have made an excellent reporter. (In fact, Mr. Price attended the news conferences and trial of child killer and racial fabricator Susan Smith as research for his brilliant 1998 novel Freedomland.) In Lush Life, Mr. Price has turned his journalistic eye and gothic imagination on the gentrification of the Lower East Side to compelling and very occasionally melodramatic effect.

Obsessed as always by race, poverty and deceitful witnesses, Mr. Price builds a mystery out of two “black and/or Hispanic” males robbing three of the “Young, Gifted and White” transplants to the neighborhood. In a fictional echo of the real-life killing of Nicole du Fresne, who defied muggers and was shot to death on Clinton Street in 2005, the young actor Ike Marcus breezily dismisses the demand for money and takes a fatal bullet in the chest.

Structured mostly out of vignettes and wild goose chases, Lush Life doesn’t whip up quite the same gale-force power as Freedomland. Blame the changed racial climate and the relatively low symbolic stakes of the crime: The killing doesn’t pit racial blocs against one other as did Susan Smith’s lies, or the sagas of iconic New York victims like Bernhard Goetz, Tawana Brawley and Yankel Rosenbaum. The blacks, Latinos and Asians in Lush Life have about as much sympathy—and scorn—for the hapless Ike Marcus as the whites do.

Unlike a classic murder mystery—where a master detective pieces together clues hidden in plain sight—Mr. Price’s novel unfolds haphazardly, as his characters, through a series of lucky accidents, stumble across information pertinent to the crime. In that sense, he updates the naturalist tradition of Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, in which impersonal social forces determine the shape of lives. Here destiny is less a function of character than of net worth (or parental net worth), employment, race, the political priorities of the police brass and plain dumb luck.

 

THE CHARACTERS IN Lush Life may be trapped by circumstance, but they sure can talk. Mr. Price devotes page after page to the profane and often hilarious verbal energy of the Lower East Side, whether he’s portraying smart-talking cops, resentful suspects, self-involved hipsters, “Geezer/Crackpot/Hippies” or a “bearded, shirtless man sticking the top half of his body out of a sixth-floor tenement window and screaming at everybody to shut the fuck up and go back to New Jersey.”

Mr. Price’s extensive work for Hollywood has sharpened his ear for dialogue, but it occasionally leads him to try out devices ill-suited to a novel. The seemingly endless scenes with the grief-stricken father of the murdered Ike, which a talented actor might have been able to sell onscreen, come off as maudlin on the page. And some of the tangential romantic escapades of both frustrated artist Eric Cash and Detective Matty Clark almost seem like Mr. Price trying out new angles in an ongoing TV series.

A sequel to Lush Life would be redundant. Ending with a new murder, the novel suggests that the brutality and neglect of the projects births new killers every day, doomed to life stories depressingly similar to the one just recounted.

 

Andrew Rosenblum’s writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Slate and Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio. He can be reached at books@observer.com.

The New York Fiction of Richard Price: These Guys Sure Can Talk