I don’t read a lot of mystery fiction in the traditional sense. Anything I tackle in that genre is usually less concerned with whodunnit then whydithappen, and there aren’t many authors who do that better than Richard Price.
As I am a white person of certain biases, I have a clear affinity for The Wire. Among the numerous things The Wire does right is the inclusion of skilled crime novelists on the show’s writing staff, Price among them [he even cameos in season two as D’Angelo Barksdale’s prison English tutor]. So my slavish devotion to the show pushed me toward exploring Price’s novels, specifically Samaritan and what most consider his epic, Clockers. They did not disappoint. His most recent work, 2008’s Lush Life, keeps the streak alive, while swapping the New Jersey of those earlier books for New York’s Lower East Side.
The LES of today is the Brooklyn of thirty years ago. Once a working class immigrant neighbourhood, the gentrification of the area has been in full swing for the better part of a decade, with upscale boutiques and restaurants opening around the block from all-night bodegas and community housing. Chinese immigrants walk the streets every night with hipster aspiring writer/actor/songwriter types and the poor kids who stick them up for a quick buck. This is the playground Price sets up shop in for the novel, and the result is a spellbinding story of what one murder can do to the multitude of people involved.
The murder in question is that of Ike Marcus, an aspiring actor waiting tables at a trendy café, who makes the mistake of telling a would-be mugger, ‘Not tonight, my man,’ catching a slug in his chest for his troubles. One of his companions that night, café manager and no longer aspiring anything Eric Cash finds himself wrongly arrested for the crime and later released, leaving him a complete lack of inclination to further help the cops. Matty Clark, the primary on the case, juggles the usual cop bureaucracies while keeping Ike’s father Billy in check, a man slowly splitting at the seams from the death of his only son. To say any more would spoil the plot, even though the plot isn’t really what a Price novel is about.
Because Price doesn’t care about who pulled the trigger. There’s never any last minute switch or Macguffin in his books. He wants you to understand the reasons why these random acts of violence occur, and expose the utter lack of randomness working behind them. He also wants you to see what the death of a person can do to the people who knew them, whether you know them or not. In that respect, I found Lush Life to be very similar to AMC’s The Kiling, another story of how one death impacts a variety of different lives. Price devotes a large chunk of the book to the mental deterioration of Billy Marcus, Ike’s father, and how Matty Clark manipulates it to get around the administrative roadblocks put forth by his superiors who would rather let the case die on the vine. Eric Cash, completely broken by what he’s been through, at the hands of the muggers and the cops, retreats further and further into himself, his own failures further highlighted by Ike Marcus and his last words becoming symbols of inspiration, despite most common sense dictating he should have seen it coming.
While Lush Life isn’t my favourite book by Price [read Clockers. Immediately], it’s still ridiculously good. His much celebrated ear for dialogue is on full display once again, inspiring me to read the conversations out loud, that’s just how good and cinematic his dialogue is. But it wouldn’t matter how good the dialogue was if what the characters were talking about wasn’t compelling: the various observations on what happens when a neighbourhood transitions; the kids and hoppers on the street corners ragging on each other, the young would-bes of the city, still clinging to their dreams of destined purpose; and my favourites, the ‘Quality of Life’ patrol, continually sweeping through the neighbourhood in a fake taxi, arresting anyone they think they can fold into giving up someone with a gun. They all contribute to the vivid picture Price puts down of this one corner of the most gloriously messed up city on Earth.
You can snag Lush Life from the Bargain tables of most Chapters/Indigo locations for like six bucks. Highly recommended.