Nothing that is human is alien to Price
In Lush Life, Richard Price - one of the co-writers of the brilliant TV series The Wire - has written a truly humanistic novel which captures the essence of life and longing in Lower East Side New York.
Many novels with the ambition to capture society in all its great variety and complexity ultimately do not fully succeed. Authors with such aspirations might be so focused on journalistic social description that they fall down on other aspects – such as plot, character, prose – as well as overall meaning.
So it is no mean achievement for Richard Price to have crafted a novel that works in so many ways. Lush Life is a cracking read – with compelling characters and sparkling, often-hilarious dialogue – that also reveals some important things about social life. Set in New York’s Lower East Side in 2003, Lush Life uses a murder investigation to explore the hopes and dreams of the various groups that live cheek-by-jowl in that small area of Manhattan.
It is Price’s eighth book. Probably his best-known novel prior to Lush Life was Clockers (1992). All of his works are characterised by a gritty realism. Although many involve criminal investigations, he is more than just a crime or mystery writer.
Most of all, Price is recognised as a master of dialogue. In addition to his novels, he happens to be one of the writers of the acclaimed US television series, The Wire. Fans of that show (which include me) will find in Lush Life the same finely-attuned recognition of contemporary speech, especially slang. From the police (‘vics’, ‘eye-wits’) to the kids in the poor housing projects (‘true dat’, ‘fo real’, ‘dolgier’), Price picks up on creative uses of language. In fact, he does more than that: people really don’t speak in those terms all the time; Price is actually creating a hyper-vocabulary that keeps us riveted. And this dialogue is usually not a show-off accessory, but rather its tightly tied to the character, providing nuance or insight into their psychology.
The main character at the beginning of Lush Life is Eric Cash, the 35-year-old manager of the trendy Café Berkmann. Eric came to New York 13 years before with the hope of becoming an actor, a writer or an artist of some kind. But ‘he had no particular talent or skill, or what was worse, he had a little talent, some skill’ – just enough to keep the fantasy alive. Price uses the character of Eric to provide perspective on the optimistic, live-for-the-moment twentysomethings – whose influx has changed the composition of the Lower East Side.
A new, young bartender at the café, Ike Marcus, causes Eric to reflect on his own trajectory. Ike is brash and confident, in contrast to the beaten-down and bitter Eric. One late night, when Eric and Ike are carrying Ike’s drunk friend Steve home, they are held up at gunpoint by two young men from the projects (one black and one Hispanic). Eric dutifully surrenders his wallet, but Ike steps towards them and says: ‘Not tonight, my man.’ Panicking, the guy with the gun shoots Ike, killing him. Although Price describes Ike in positive terms, this incident shows him as a naive kid from the suburbs, who thinks he can get away with a movie line and pays for it with his life.
Lush Life then ostensibly takes off as a murder mystery. But Price is really examining, in great detail, how this one murderous act impacts on so many people in the area in profound ways.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Eric turns inward and is less prominent, and so it is hard to call him the novel’s protagonist. Other characters come to the fore, most importantly the police detective Matty Clark, who leads the investigation. But Price adopts a number of narrative perspectives, and you could argue that the Lower East Side itself is the main character.
Here the world is comprised of many groups: the performance artists and hipsters; ‘geezer/crackpot/hippies’; the blacks and Hispanics of the housing projects; the Chinese; the orthodox Jews. Most of the time, these groups live in separate universes. They are not involved in a multicultural, Benetton-like love-in, but nor are they engaged in hostile, violent battle (as depicted in, say, the movie Crash – a petit-bourgeois nightmare vision of urban ethnic relations). More realistically, Price portrays the different groups as living parallel lives. Even though the geographical space of the Lower East Side is relatively limited, these groups don’t fully acknowledge one another’s existence. Most of all, he finds that people outside one’s own group are invisible. This is highlighted in a number of scenes, but most vividly in one where Eric is face-to-face with the killer, yet does not recognise him.
With such lack of meaningful interactions among different social groups, it seems from reading Price that the police are one of the few entities that have an overview of all of them. Yet even they are blinded, mainly by their narrow agenda of social control (the escapades of the marvellously named Quality of Life Task Force that patrols the neighbourhood are both revealing and hilarious). And most of the residents – with the notable exception of the white Bohemians – consider the police at best useless and at worst an oppressive force, and try to have as little as possible to do with them.
Moreover, Price shows that the mourning of deaths is one of the few remaining mechanisms to bring people in this diverse area together. He describes in great detail the elaborate shrines that are erected to mark deaths, and how everyone stops to pay respects (and he perceptively notes how the shrines seem to continue indefinitely, no matter how tatty and weather-beaten they become, because no one steps in to close them down).
Alongside these keen insights into social life, Price also pursues a sub-theme of the Lower East Side as haunted by ghosts of the past. At the turn of the twentieth century, the area was home to many newly arrived immigrants, often in jam-packed tenements. But this is one of the less successful aspects of the book. If Price was simply noting the irony that the descendants of these immigrants were moving back into this area, unaware of the history, that would be one thing. But he seems to be trying to say more: about how destructive the process of gentrification is to communities. One symbol of this in the novel is a synagogue that has collapsed. But it’s not just physical destruction; he seems to be arguing that the Lower East Side is a sacred area has been profaned by the newcomers who do not respect its history. If that is indeed what he means, it is a pretty conservative argument: who is to say that the immigrants shouldn’t have escaped the poverty years ago, and who is to say now that newer groups shouldn’t be allowed to move in and change the landscape?
But this sub-theme doesn’t overwhelm all that is good about the novel. Nor is the book just a description of social trends. Where Price really excels is in bringing out the humanity of the characters – he has true empathy. This is best evidenced in his treatment of the so-called underclass, the black and Hispanic youth. For example, the shooter, Tristan, is drawn in a multi-dimensional way. Not only do we follow his daily routine – we are also shown his inner life, and his dreams. Tristan keeps a notebook in which he writes gangsta-rap poems. They are doggerel and show him leading a fantasy life of posturing, but it’s the desire behind his writing – for a life more than what exists – that is profound (indeed, the fact that the poems are doggerel make them, ironically, more moving).
Price takes us on a lively journey in Lush Life, both brash and empathetic. Along the way he reminds us that we often look but don’t see. If he can recognise the invisible human potential, perhaps we can too.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.
Lush Life, by Richard Price is published by Farrar Straus Giroux. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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