Thursday, March 20, 2008

Review 032008

Lush Life, by Richard Price

Every writer knows the key to storytelling is execution. Writers who fail to execute a story strongly often turn to cheap tricks including high-concept ideas (i.e. implausible stories) and twist endings that muddy the conclusion. Richard Price resorts to none of these in his new novel, Lush Life.

The plot is simple (although I'm oversimplifying when I say): it's about a young, white man on a night of bar-hopping with two buddies who is shot dead when a mugging goes south in the Lower East Side of New York City. It's the type of story that could be 'pulled from the headlines' although, outside of New York, it'd make a better news brief. With this simple set-up, Price builds something much wider in scope.

Price follows the investigation of detectives Matty Clark and Yolanda Bello, which is never a straight line, A to B.

Price follows one of the survivors of the mugging, Eric Cash, a never-will-be aspiring novelist stuck working at Café Berkmann.

Price follows Billy Marcus, the grieving father of the dead victim, Ike.

Price follows the shooter, Tristan, and his accomplice, Little Dap.

Price follows the Quality of Life Task Force, a made-up name police force that prowls the streets to essentially fill quotas.

It may seem that there's a large, complicated cast: there is. But Price gives the reader characters who are distinguishable from each other without relying on archetypes. Price's research is evident to the point where he may be writing of real people, of a real crime.

If Price was writing Lush Life for the aspiring writer, say Eric Cash, then he gives two important lessons: the first, execution, as mentioned above; the second, writing great dialogue. When Matty and Yolanda interview Eric about his night out with Ike and another character, Steve Boulware, Price is able to mask exposition and add humour to the story:

"What did you guys talk about?"
"Me? I didn't say much. But they're all irons in the fire, like, apparently Steve had just gotten a callback for a movie, right? His first callback, you know, like next stop the Oscars, then it's Ike's turn, gonna start up some online literary magazine, raise money for a documentary, we're all gonna collaborate on a screenplay, la-la, la-la, the usual bullshit." Matty and Yolanda solemnly nodding, neither of them wanting to stem the flow.
"Anybody have problems with anybody?" Matty asked.
"You mean between them?"
"Between them, you, anyone else..."
Eric hesitated. "No."
"What was that." Yolanda smiled.
"What was what," he said, then, "I just get so fucking tired of hearing all of that, you know? Everybody's big plans around here."
"I have mine too, you know. I just don't..."
Eric's hypocrisy is cause for a laugh, and Price isn't concerned that his story's survivor sometimes acts as a coward and is a criminal himself.

Another fantastic passage, is Matty giving Billy Marcus an example of how an investigation can unfold:
"We'll go up there, he'll give us his partner, we'll pick up his partner, his partner will say D-block's a lying motherfucker, will say, 'Look at me. I'm two twenty-five and ripped. I never had to use a gun in my life,' but he'll also tell us something, like the only guy he knows uses a .38, does inside-the-building holdups, is some character, let's call him E-Walk. OK. Let's go find E-Walk. Problem is, E-Walk is a solo operator, but E-Walk, it'll turn out, will know this other stickup team we never even heard of. Go track down those boneheads. Only problem with those guys once we find them is that one was locked up at the time of the homicide and the other was in the hospital. But! The one in the hospital? He'll know a guy uses a .38, sometimes works with a partner, except that guy, it'll turn out, is a light-skinned Dominican, looks almost white. But. But. But. The point of which is to say, Billy, that with your son, it'll have to do with luck, and it'll have to do with just plugging away, plugging away ..."

And that's how the crime is solved in Lush Life. If this book was an episode of Law & Order, the plot would be too basic, too, seemingly, conventional. The writer would have to throw in a political scandal or the death of a lawyer or some other 'TV' coincidence. Price is confident as a storyteller that none of that is needed. Just as the detectives in his novel plug away in their investigation, it's Price's persistence that makes Lush Life a satisfying novel.

Reading Price's novel reminded me of the TV series, The Wire, a show Price wrote for; Price's 1992 novel, Clockers, served as inspiration for The Wire. Being reminded by the best police procedural TV show ever produced isn't a bad thing, but early on, that feeling of Lush Life just being The Wire: The Novel was gnawing at me. That feeling however faded.

There are similarities between this novel and that TV show, most notably the strong dialogue and that the audience is shown a story through the eyes of the police and the criminals; it's not so much the good guys and the bad guys, because Price doesn't write black-and-white heroes and villains.

Lush Life, however, has its own world; is its own story. A fantastic one, too, and the most important American novel published so far this year. That's not only because of Price's execution, but also for how he entertains.


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