Novelist Richard Price is also a successful screenwriter, counting such films as The Color of Money, Sea of Love and the HBO show "The Wire" among his credits, so it is not surprising that his books are heavy on snappy, streetwise dialogue. His latest, Lush Life, is no exception. Set on the Lower East Side of New York, it is a sprawling social narrative cloaked in the guise of a crime novel, and laid down with rat-a-tat verbal precision. As in a screenplay, Price expertly crosscuts scenes, building the narrative in long or short bursts of visual and emotional intensity, and it is easy to imagine the film that Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee might make from this book.
The drama of Lush Life resides at the crowded intersection where incongruent downtown elements meet—cops and criminals, faded hipsters and young aspirants, flash real estate developers and the Chinese, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Jewish tenants they are impatient to displace. This is a world where crumbling tenements and urine-reeking public housing stand cheek by jowl with pricy restaurants, renovated clubs and new corporate high rises.
The crime that sets the plot in motion is just an ordinary street robbery gone bad. Two teenage gangstas hold up three inebriated white guys, and when one of the white guys foolishly puts up resistance, he is gunned down. The 20-something victim, Ike Marcus, was a well-liked aspiring writer, supporting himself as a bartender. One of his companions, Eric Cash, the manager of the restaurant where Ike worked, barely knew the dead man, but his behavior at the scene of the crime, along with the faulty testimony of some eyewitnesses, raise the suspicions of the police. They bring Eric in for some tough questioning, and when they don't like his attitude or answers, they book him. But when the flimsy case the cops have against him falls apart, Eric is released. He then turns into an uncooperative, even hostile, witness, complicating the job of solving Ike's murder.
Lush Life is built on a triumvirate of protagonists—Eric, Matty, the police detective, and Billy Marcus, the distraught father of the victim. At 35, Eric has just recently come to terms with the fact that he is never going to make it as an actor or screenwriter, but his resulting self-loathing and contempt for anyone with dreams is palpable. The crime is the last straw, and he starts skimming more heavily from the tip pool at the restaurant, his sights set on leaving the bogus Manhattan life behind for good. Divorced and suitably cynical, Matty is wedded to his job. Though he has no delusions about the way the system works, he nonetheless is mortified to discover that his own sons—one of them a cop—are pushing drugs upstate. Billy, thrust into the nightmare of his son's death, becomes the walking wounded, wandering, quite literally, between rage, disorientation and guilt. Brought together by the killing and its aftermath, each of these three men undergoes his individual journey into the heart of darkness.
The mean streets Price leads us down have been well traveled in books, films and on television, but he skillfully sidesteps the clichés that so often abound in this kind of material. A big novel (and to be honest, Price might have tightened things up a bit), Lush Life has plenty of room for dozens of beautifully delineated ancillary characters—from the sharp-tongued but compassionate policewoman to the Israeli rabble rouser to the apparent murderer himself. In Price's world, no one is without guilt, yet everyone has understandable reasons for making the choices he or she makes, and even the most fleeting walk-on is given a quickly fleshed-out backstory.
With its cinematic grit, Lush Life is almost anti-literary in its posture, yet somehow that makes Price's literary achievement all the more impressive. The novel has a tough, one could say distinctly New York, point of view. Yet even for readers for whom the Lower East Side of Manhattan—where a band of cops called the Quality of Life Task Force culls the streets and the Virgin Mary can appear in the condensation on the door to the beer cooler in a Yemeni-run convenience store—is as foreign a place as, say, Baghdad, it still speaks directly to the universality of human desire and disappointment.
Robert Weibezahl is the author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead. Copyright 2008 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2008 January #1
The method employed by Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment serves Price's purpose--and then some--in his wrenching eighth novel (Samaritan, 2003, etc.).This is the story of a NYC crime and its aftermath, focused on the perpetrators; the victims and their families; the cops who doggedly pursue the frailest threads of evidence and possibility; and the bustling, chaotic momentum of an ethnically mixed urban environment forever threatened by venality, violence and despair. It opens with a vivid cluster of parallel scenes, leading toward the early-morning incident that befalls restaurant manager Eric Cash (a wannabe actor/writer whose several careers are going nowhere) and two drinking companions, when two street punks with a gun make a demand and Eric's coworker Ike Marcus offers a smiling reply--and is gunned down. Eric's version of events raises justifiable suspicions, and shapes his subsequent baffled progress toward understanding himself. Veteran homicide cop Matty Clark and his soulful Latina partner Yolonda Bello hit the streets, while attempting to deflect and relieve the crushing sorrow that circumscribes Ike's dad Billy. And never-had-a-chance, virtually family-less teenager Tristan Acevedo channels his rage into fantasies of empowerment, composing inchoate, menacing "poetry," while struggling with his demons. Price offers a profane vernacular feast of raw dialogue. And as Matty and Yolonda (subordinating their embattled personal lives to the task at hand) draw nearer to the truth, Price tells their stories in a complex structure of juxtaposed scenes that ratchets up the tension. The only thing even close to a flaw in this book is its plot's surface resemblance to that of Clockers. But this time Price digs deeper, and the pain is sharper.There oughta be a law requiring Richard Price to publish more frequently. Because nobody does it better. Really. No time, no way. Copyright Kirkus 2008 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2007 November #2
Still waiting tables on the Lower East Side at age 35, Eric has every reason to be jealous of rising star Ike, who happens to be gunned down while they're out for a stroll. Oh, -really? With a national tour. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2008 March #1
Price (Samaritan ) is an exceptionally accomplished storyteller whose ear for the accents of New York is the equal of the late, lamented George V. Higgins's love for Boston speech. And though what Price narrates often disturbs, it is just as often funny. A hood advises a young accomplice how to use a gun for the first time: "You just do it to get it done with, then you can start concentratin' on getting better at it, havin' fun with it." The novel starts with a killing, the consequence of a late-night robbery. The killing is almost accidental; an eyewitness exclaims, "It was like God snapped his fingers." Eric, a 35-year-old failed actor and writer, is paralyzed by guilt over his failure to stop the murder. The police, who find him highly suspicious, arrest him, and everything goes downhill from there. When the shooter is finally caught, he is a pathetic man-boy from the projects. Price's New York is a city that no longer works: too many people are left bruised, with no safety net. Strongly recommended for fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/07.]--David Keymer, Modesto, CA[Page 75]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Master of the Bronx and Jersey projects, Price (Clockers ) turns his unrelenting eye on Manhattan's Lower East Side in this manic crescendo of a novel that explores the repercussions of a seemingly random shooting. When bartender Ike Marcus is shot to death after barhopping with friends, NYPD Det. Matty Clark and his team first focus on restaurant manager and struggling writer Eric Cash, who claims the group was accosted by would-be muggers, despite eyewitnesses saying otherwise. As Matty grills Eric on the still-hazy details of the shooting, Price steps back and follows the lives of the alleged shooters--teenagers Tristan Acevedo and Little Dap Williams, who live in a nearby housing project--as well as Ike's grieving father, Billy, who hounds the police even as leads dwindle. As the intersecting narratives hurtle toward a climax that's both expected and shocking, Price peels back the layers of his characters and the neighborhood until all is laid bare. With its perfect dialogue and attention to the smallest detail, Price's latest reminds readers why he's one of the masters of American urban crime fiction. Author tour. (Mar.)[Page 151]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.