Lush Life
by Richard Price (2008)
Picador (2009)
455 pp

lush-life

The real reason I got through Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 was because my youngest son was not sleeping at night. For months I would frequently stay up until way-too-late just hoping he’d finally nod off, dreaming about the day when he finally settled into a decent bedtime. It finally started happening. Foolishly, just as I was about to gain a good bedtime back, I started Richard Price’s Lush Life. At least I’m used to not sleeping, right? No, that’s not true. But this was a book worth staying up for.

I’m not sure how coherent this review is going to be; I knew little about Lush Life before I started it, and I think that’s a great way to approach it. Lush Life builds and changes its form in unexpected ways, and I’d hate to give away too much. Then again, there is so much in the book that I could write in depth about aspects of it and it would still leave plenty for the reader to discover. I will do my best to refrain, though.

This is the first Richard Price novel I’ve read. While I’m anxious to read all other books by him, I think this one was a perfect start for me because I was sucked in the moment I discovered that the stage is the Lower East Side of Manhattan (my office is by the WTC site), a very unique part of the world. Here the murder of a young white man occurs. His co-worker Eric Cash, a thirty-five year-old white man with a dead dream, was walking with him when it happened, at 4:00 a.m. What ensues is one of the best police procedurals I’ve ever read or watched, despite the fact that such books and films and TV shows are in abundance (and almost always suffer from sensationalism and a complete lack of regard for how such things truly take place given the legal and practical strictures). Prices brings it all to life, the characters and the setting, in all of its gritty, unlikely combinations:

“You know why this isn’t too bad a place? The kids are so close to all walks of life around here, you know? Most projects are kind of like, that’s all they know, but you go two blocks in any direction from here, you got Wall Street, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, they’re like release valves, you know? They give you the confidence to mix it up in the world — “

“And jux everybody in sight,” Iacone murmured.

The Lower East Side is a character in the book. It is the complex beast that brings together privileged white kids and the minorities of the projects. Though the worlds co-exist, they rarely mesh together. One of my favorite passages in the book is a description of the shrine set up at the murder site because it shows a mixture of the diverse cultures but keeps them in their own unique flavor.

The offerings, as far as he could tell, represented three of the worlds that made up the universe down here: Latino; Young, Gifted, and White; and Geezer/Crackpot/Hippie — no word from the Chinese.

There were dozens of lit botanica candles, a scattering of coins on a velvet cloth, a reed cross laid flat on a large round stone, a CD player running Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” on an endless loop, a videocassette of Mel Gibson’s The Passion still sealed in its box, a paperback of Black Elk Speaks, some kind of unidentifiable white pelt, a few petrified-looking joints, bags of assorted herbs, coils of still-smoldering incense that gave off competing scents, and a jar of olive oil.

This shrine also serves as a device to show the passage of time and descent of the characters involved in the murder and its investigation. Despite an extreme emotional episode, time erases the trace of emotion.

It had rained hard for a few hours earlier in the day, and on this, the fourth night since the murder, the shrine felt all wrong, sodden and charred, sardonic and vaguely threatening; as if to say, this is what time does, what becomes of us mere hours after the tears and flowers.

Price not only sets the stage masterfully but he also directs the characters perfectly. Through their dialogue and inflections the reader is allowed to delve into the multi-layered text. Much has been said about Price’s skill with dialogue, some saying that he’s the best writer of dialogue in American literature, so I just want to give a few examples, hoping they do him a bit of justice. Notice this line from one of the women detectives, a Latina who grew up in the projects and who is now such a great interrogator because of her ability to empathize, perhaps even feign empathy:

“You want a motive?” Yolanda said crisply. “Here’s a motive.  Men, overreact, to pain. And when they do? They take everybody with them.”

Sometimes it annoys me when the author directs the dialogue too much, emphasizing words and breaths so much that I’m distracted by their extra-narrative clues. Here, however, if I weren’t looking I might have noticed that “pain” is italicized, but I don’t think I would have noticed the commas separating “men,” “overreact,” and “to pain.” Price pulls us into the narrative so well that I usually didn’t feel like I was reading at all. It was like I was close enough to feel the breaths. Furthermore, Price lets his characters’ words bring out the depth. We know about Yolanda from what she is willing to tell others. This, then, is a particularly telling quotation. Such quotations are not used by Price to foreshadow something the character will do later one; they are not used to pull the reader’s heartstrings, making the characters less real and more like props. These quotations add depth to the characters, and through them to the story and its pathway through the bewilderment at issue in this novel.

Another aspect about the dialogue that had me fascinated was how Price combined gritty street-talk with beautiful poetry. Somehow his dialogue feels at once real (again, the inflections, the pauses, the idioms, the cliches, even the almost silent “uh-huh”s) and yet, if analyzed closely, is so much better than a real conversation. Meaning the dialogue is obviously not realistic. No, no!  I’m not complaining! No one in real life rants with the poetry and rhythm of a character in Philip Roth’s novels, but those are some of the most revealing and wonderful parts of Roth’s oeuvre. Lush Life‘s is a similarly wonderful and perhaps more extensive accomplishment: getting street-talk to speak profoundly about the depths of the human being and the human being’s relationship with others and with a location. And all while telling a great story.

Another character brought fully to life in many episodes of brilliant dialogue is Billy Marcus, the victim’s father. Here’s an extended example where dialogue takes the reader on a journey into the psyche of this complex character. Billy is speaking to Detective Matty Clark, the detective out to solve the case:

“Just . . .” Billy reading his mind. “You’re him, OK? Now . . . The guy shot your friend, knows you’re the only eyewitness. Wouldn’t you be worried that that guy might be coming back to tie up loose ends? Wouldn’t you be in fear for your life? Wouldn’t you get the hell out of Dodge until the cops catch this guy? But this Cash, correct me if I’m wrong, he doesn’t do that.”

“Billy . . .”

“As far as I know, he still lives where he lives, works where he works, goes about his business like there’s nothing, nobody out there to fear. Why is that?”

“Don’t do this to yourself,” Matty said.

“Can you say to me one hundred percent that he didn’t do it?” Squinting up at him.

“That what?”

“Is that the real reason they didn’t give him immunity?”

“Look, it’s an open homicide. They didn’t give him immunity because they don’t give anyone immunity. They wouldn’t give you immunity. Do you understand that?”

“But still, can you say to me, ‘Billy, one hundred percent, the guy didn’t do it.'”

“Listen — “

“Say that to me. Say, ‘Billy, one hundred percent.'”

“I never say that.”

“OK, then.” Bobbing his head. He seemed almost happy.

Over his shoulder, Nina’s face was smeared into the heel of her hand as she watched the people passing by on Pitt.

“But this time I will. One hundred percent, he didn’t do it.”

Flustered, Billy stepped in place like a counting horse.

“I mean, I’m not saying he’s the guy, like, pulled the trigger,” Billy talking to himself now as much as to Matty. “I’m just . . . I think maybe he’s got something to hide.”

“Did you hear what I said?” Matty leaned in to him.

“Had a bad day,” Billy murmured. “Yeah, true, no kidding, I’ll grant him that. He had a very bad day . . .”

“Billy, listen to me.”

“But you know who had the worst day of all? My son. My son had the worst possible day you can have.”

There are so many excellent, revealing episodes: the Quality of Life patrol, the appearance and disappearance of the Virgin Mary in some condensed water vapor on a deli’s refrigerator glass, the “celebration” the victim’s friends put on for him, the interrogation of Eric Cash, the poetic musings of the murderer, any scene involving Billy Marcus — well, any scene at all, honestly. It’s all good.

(Forgot to link to this in the main post: John Self’s interview with Richard Price.)

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