The novelist Nelson Algren once famously likened his native Chicago to a pretty girl with a broken nose. For Richard Price, the big city doesn't even get to be pretty. The Bronx in his early novels, "The Wanderers" and "Bloodbrothers," is all bruises and busted cartilage, stuffed with street toughs, dysfunctional families and gallows humor. Years later, in a series of novels set in the mythical city of Dempsy, N.J. ("Clockers," "Freedomland" and "Samaritan"), his portraits of the urban underclass became even more bleak.
And yet Price's novels are consistently inspiring -- not because he deals in happy endings, but because he has an eye for detail, ear for dialogue and abiding concern for the big picture that rivals Charles Dickens, Theodore Dreiser and John Steinbeck. In a time when the widescreen, ambitious social novel has fallen out of favor, Price still believes.
"Lush Life" is Price's first novel since 1983 to take place fully in his native New York City, and it's written as if he had a lot of catching up to do. Set in the Lower East Side, the novel studies every rung of the class ladder: blacks and Latinos in the housing projects, Chinese immigrants crammed into tenements, wealthy young "La Bohemers" trying to live out their I'll-take-Manhattan dream, elderly Jews slowly dissolving from the urban landscape. Price summarizes this interplay early in a beautiful bit of prose-poem writing, tracking what a "Quality of Life" police task force sees as it drives through the neighborhood: "Sex shop, tea shop, synagogue, corner. Boulangerie, bar, hat boutique, corner. Iglesia, gelateria, matzo shop, corner."
Police officers and detectives routinely navigate this mix of worlds in a way nobody else does, which is why Price uses them in his fiction so often -- and why he's often wrongly classified as a crime novelist. But while the plot of "Lush Life" centers on a murder, we know whodunit early.
The novel's central incident is a 4 a.m. shooting in front of an apartment building. Three men are accosted: Eric Cash, a manager at a bustling neighborhood restaurant; Ike Marcus, a young bartender there, and Steven Boulware, Ike's aspiring-actor buddy. When a gunman approaches them, Cash dumps his wallet instantly and Boulware drunkenly slumps away. Marcus, however, plays it like he's the star in his own movie: "Not tonight, my man," he tells the gunman, who, scared, shoots Marcus dead. "Suicide by mouth," as one cop puts it.
Cash is the novel's central character in some ways. Initially the lead suspect in the killing, we see him worked over for many pages by a pair of detectives, and we watch him skimming tips and attempting to deal coke to make enough money to skip town. For Price, he's symbolic of the bright New Yorker who's steamrollered by the changing social landscape and swallowed up in his own failed ambitions: "You are a self-centered, self-pitying, cowardly, envious, resentful, failed-ass career waiter. That's your everyday jacket," a detective barks at him. The cop's not wrong.
But the pleasure of "Lush Life" is its breadth -- many people orbit this incident, and we get to know them well: The shooter, Tristan, is as frustrated as Cash, lorded over by his drunken stepfather and mocked by his friends; Boulware provides a window into New York's hipster world ("the Eloi of the Lower East Side and Williamsburg," as Price puts it), and Ike's father is grief-stricken yet compelled to play amateur detective, which exposes Ike's character and the frustrations of police teams working blind alleys -- until a lead eventually emerges.
It's a big story, but Price isn't much for symphonic flourishes or noisy statements of theme -- he trusts the accuracy of his dialogue and his straightforward descriptions to do the work. (His rich sense of humor helps, too, although many of the jokes aren't fit for a family paper.) A reader looking for a neatly organized detective story will only be frustrated by Price's efforts. But the narrative thread is there, and Price's characterizations are as strong as they've been since "Clockers." Like the Jacob Riis photographs Price consistently references, the urban portrait of "Lush Life" is disarming, but it compels you to look closer.
Mark Athitakis is the arts editor of Washington City Paper. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.