“Lush Life”, the new novel by Richard Price, author of “Clockers” and “Freedomland”, is an engrossing, highly detailed look at how a random crime affects the people in a small area of New York City.
Much like his previous novels, and his work on the HBO Series “The Wire”, Price has an eye for detail and dialogue making all of his characters appear to be authentic. As you begin reading, and the characters begin using slang that you may be unfamiliar with, the story may be hard to penetrate. But once you get the rhythm of speech and life Price is trying to convey, you become engrossed. “Lush Life” is not a book you can read casually. You have to commit yourself to the story; read it casually and you will never be able to follow the myriad characters and their lives. This is actually a good thing. So much of what we are offered on bookshelves these days is cookie cutter fiction written by the same handful of authors eager for a television or movie sale. When you read a book by an author like Price, it is almost a shock to the system. After so many years of junk food, biting your teeth into a real novel is a bit of a shock.
Eric, a thirty something living in a small apartment, is becoming depressed. He is finally starting to realize his dreams of becoming an actor are fast fading. Instead of an actor who manages a local restaurant, waiting for the next audition, he has simply become the manager of the local restaurant. And he is none too happy about it. He regards the staff and customers with barely disguised contempt, steals from their tip pool, isn’t beyond experimenting with drugs, etc. One night, he and co-worker, Stephen, go out drinking with Ike, the new bartender. As they walk drunkenly through the neighborhood, they come across Little Dap, a fledgling drug dealer, and Tristan, his new recruit. A gun is fired and Ike is killed. Eric runs away, afraid for his life and is soon picked up by Matty and Yolanda, two detectives. Eric is the prime suspect in the shooting and the police shoot holes through his story. Soon, they realize they have the wrong guy and Ike’s dad, Billy Marcus, appears, distraught. He bugs Matty trying to get a resolution, an identity. When he learns Eric is probably the only eyewitness, yet is reluctant to help because of his treatment, he starts to obsess about the restaurant manager. Each of these people, who are affected by this tragedy begin to act out, frustrated by their own lack of control.
Price introduces us to each of these characters, and many more, giving us insight into their lives before the murder. We watch as people trek into the neighborhood to look at the Virgin Mary, captured in ice on the inside of a cooler at the convenience store. Eric and Ike go to the convenience store and help get rid of the image, to ease the line blocking the front of their restaurant.
All of these moments help to add an incredible breadth to his portrait of this community. Price really gets down to the minutia, giving us details of many insignificant items and moments, things that don’t really figure into the story but help to make it seem more real nonetheless. Because we know about Matty’s divorce, and his troubles with his two sons, one of whom is a cop and the other is a teenager, his interrogation of Eric and his attempts to help Billy Marcus have more resonance. All of the characters benefit from these off-hand observations and seemingly insignificant moments.
Price is also great at presenting the ins and outs, the minutia, and the finer, smaller details of any police procedure. As Matty and Yolanda interrogate Eric, we feel every moment of the restaurant manager’s pain as the two detectives put him through the ringer. Later, we see practically every moment of the investigation as it weaves back and forth. This is one of the highlights of Price’s work. He clearly knows what he is talking about. Either he has studied these organizations in depth, or he has some inside help. But these moments seem extremely real, extremely authentic.
The film opens with a chapter about “The Quality of Life Task Force”, a group of officers who drive around in a cab looking for people to bust. They make appearances throughout the story, but their purpose in the overall story is lost on me. There is a brief scene in which they interact with Matty, late in the story, but otherwise they seem to simply be some sort of separate constellation. Price doesn’t integrate them into the overall fabric of the story enough.
Also, Price is, perhaps, too intent on making sure everything appears real, authentic, life-like. Because of this, the book sort of just ends. The investigation comes to a close and everyone and everything continues on their normal course, seemingly little affected by the rest of the events that have just unfolded. Because of this, the story isn’t quite as memorable as you would expect. Because everything is so good until this point, you expect there to be a final confrontation, a final moment between a couple of the characters, to leave us with a memorable last impression. This doesn’t happen. It is probably more realistic to have the story end in this fashion, it just isn’t as memorable.
“Lush Life” is a very good book, filled with vivid characters that are real, strange, interesting and complex.