A Grim Tour

Best known for his 1992 novel Clockers, Richard Price writes gritty and urbane police procedurals whose nuanced realism is informed by modern sociology. In Price’s novels, the modern city is more than a mere setting for a crime; it is a character itself, a perilous, richly populated ecosystem governed by ruthless economic and social forces. There is little hope in Price’s fiction, and even less justice. His plots feature few true villains, but many desperate pawns—often young men acting out of anger and frustration. This is a world where crime often pays, and the rare honest detective, overworked and trapped in bureaucratic red tape, only sometimes gets his man. It is a vision of the modern city without hope.

Clockers was very much a novel of the early 1990s, a time when the news brought sobering studies of inner-city youth, reports of corrupt cops, and statistics showing crime rising throughout America’s cities. It was an era when Times Square was still known for its peepshows—before the vaunted Giuliani cleanup and Disneyfication of 42nd Street, before wave after wave of moneymaking turned Manhattan into the capital of a new Gilded Age. On the surface, the New York of today is a vastly different city from the New York of fifteen or twenty years ago. Yet the new novel, Lush Life, suggests that beneath its veneer of gentrification, New York remains the same. The poor are still poor, the powerful still corrupt. Loneliness is rampant. Violence abounds, albeit more subtly than before.

Written in the author’s distinctive quick-cut, cinematic style, full of rapid dialogue so “real” that a reader struggles at times to decode it, Lush Life centers on a mugging gone wrong on a Lower East Side street where late one night a pair of teenage wannabe gangsters mug three white men. It’s a story familiar to anyone who has ever skimmed the New York Post. One of the teens pulls a gun, and Ike Marcus—young, brash, drunk, and new to New York—steps forward and says, “Not tonight, my man.” The kids panic, the gun goes off, and Ike is killed.

When routine forensic procedures are botched within the first hours of the investigation, it becomes clear that the type of police work we see on CSI isn’t going to happen here. In Richard Price’s New York, cases are solved—if they are solved—not through erudite deduction, but by dumb chance. And in fact, Lush Life is less concerned with solving a crime than with providing an expansive view of the Lower East Side, cataloguing social ills, and detailing the causes and consequences of urban crime. Our guide through this sometimes grim tour is the investigating police officer, Matty Clark, a hard-bitten detective married to his work, with a difficult ex-wife and a history of meaningless flings. That sounds like the protagonist of countless novels, but Price takes the genre clichés and makes them fresher and more human than we expect. In the end, Matty isn’t your traditional cynic with a heart of gold. Though capable of empathy, pity, and a certain degree of patience, he is neither kind nor forgiving. Repulsed by weakness, both in himself and others, he lacks the rumpled righteousness of a Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. If he works hard, it’s not out of a sense of duty to protect the vulnerable, but rather because working hard is what the City of New York pays him to do. He’s no hero, but he’s the best we’ve got.

Price cuts back and forth between Matty’s investigation and the struggles of Eric Cash, the only witness to Ike’s death. Eric is the prototypical “new” New Yorker, a thirty-five-year-old aspiring artist living downtown and working as a host in a hip Lower East Side restaurant. At the start of the novel, he and his dreams have already been beaten down by the city, but fresh indignity comes when he is suspected of Ike’s murder and interrogated by Matty for a hellish twenty hours, an encounter that sends him spiraling into an unexpected crisis. We also meet Ike’s young killer, Tristan—a poster boy for urban violence, abused at home, a pariah at school. His first taste of violence leaves him wanting more. Finally, there’s Ike’s father, Billy, a Westchester suburbanite undone by his son’s violent death. Powerless and lost, unable to face his family, Billy wanders the Lower East Side, searching in vain for answers. In this anguish, Price offers a persuasive anatomy of grief.

Though Lush Life is complex, nuanced, and full of convincing detail, its brand of social realism is so prevalent in current TV shows such as The Wire (for which Price has written) that at times it seems almost too familiar. Perhaps the genre itself has lost some of its power to shock us. And while Price evinces genuine sympathy for drug dealers and murderers, he can’t seem to write a young, white character who isn’t obnoxious, narcissistic, or vapid; his attitude toward the liberal-arts graduates who flock to Manhattan is consistently condescending. In the end, perhaps the problem with this kind of social realism is that it’s bound by, well, sociology and realism, its events and characters all relentlessly predetermined. I kept hoping Price would surprise me with some redemptive message. But he didn’t. In Lush Life, there are no solutions for America’s cities, only rearrangements of the same old problems.

Published in the 2008-08-15 issue: 
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Stephen Aubrey is a former editorial assistant for Commonweal.

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