September 19, 2008

Richard Price: Lush Life

Posted in Bloomsbury, Price Richard at 8:00 am by John Self

I seem to have a last-come, first-served approach to my reading. Despite the giddy piles of unread books littering my home, the arrival of a new title always brings with it a sense of urgency and importance. Indeed, I already had a Richard Price novel in those piles – his last, 2003’s Samaritan – and had been aware of lavish praise for his books for some years (Clockers, his 1992 novel, is seemingly the granddaddy of them all). Nonetheless, when I received this handsome hefty new hardback (the US edition, pictured further down, is as beautiful in its way), I knew I was lost.

Lush Life is roughly structured as a police procedural – don’t click away, give me a minute here – set in Manhattan, and it opens with Price showing us what to expect from the next 450 pages. The police ‘Quality of Life taxi’ (four officers, “their mantra: Dope, guns, overtime”) is scouring the streets, “misery lights revolving,” for crimes and misdemeanours:

Restless, they finally pull out to honeycomb the streets for an hour of endless tight right turns: falafel joint, jazz joint, gyro joint, corner. Schoolyard, creperie, realtor, corner. Tenement, tenement, tenement museum, corner. Pink Pony, Blind Tiger, muffin boutique, corner. Sex shop, tea shop, synagogue, corner. Boulangerie, bar, hat boutique corner. Iglesia, gelateria, matzo shop, corner. Bollywood, Buddha, botanica, corner…

It’s a risky and showy opening; but it’s a showy city. New York is showing itself to us all the time, perpetually being shown to us on TV and film, so that even someone who has never been there has plenty of pictures and expectations in mind. Price’s task is to give us a New York which is both consistent and surprising. He succeeds, but more than that, he creates an internally consistent world which is so immersive and engrossing that for once – and I had always dismissed such claims – I fell for the reviewerly cliché of really wanting the book to last much longer than it did, so I could remain in this immaculately created and fully imagined world for as long as possible.

Price is perhaps better known as a screenwriter than as a novelist: he’s been Oscar nominated for film work, won an award for his writing on the more-talked-about-
than-viewed
TV series The Wire, and has the thankless task of translating Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 into English for the film version (perhaps they held a gigantic cheque over his eyes so he didn’t know what he was agreeing to).

From all this you might expect – and you would be right – that Price’s forte is dialogue. Speech is at the heart of Lush Life, and a good two-thirds to three-quarters of the book is taken up with it. This is dialogue which is rich in street patois and old-cop wisecracks, and which – like Alan Bennett’s in an entirely different way – appears realistic through its use of idioms and neologisms but which is far too artificed and compact to be naturalistic. But even if the lines of dialogue themselves are artificial, their purpose is entirely authentic. Price’s people talk over one another, trail off in the middle of sentences or start to say one thing and then change to another.

More importantly, almost every exchange of dialogue in the book conveys not just what is being said, but the psychology of the character speaking and their history, relationship of power and motivations toward their interlocutor. It’s there when the restaurant manager speaks to his employees; when the cop and the victim’s father talk; and during a magnificent, protracted interrogation which stretches over dozens of pages. Given that so much dialogue in fiction is underfed and dysfunctional – providing characters with a chance to explain what they already know for the benefit of the reader, clumsily foreshadowing, or just treading water – Price’s rich exchanges are a wonder, and a treat, to eavesdrop on: comic, laconic, poetic. You might wonder then why I haven’t quoted any of it, and the answer is that I’m not convinced it would work out of context. You’re going to have to trust me – and Price – on this one.

(Or alternatively, see here for James Wood’s take on the use of dialogue in Lush Life, which provides examples in spades, and nabs most of the best quotes I would have wanted to use, including a cop who, when asked why his request can only be accommodated on Sunday night, is told by his superior, “Tomorrow’s too soon, Monday I can’t promise, Tuesday’s unpredictable to the point of science fiction.”)

The rhythms of speech even extend into the narrative voice, partly I suppose through ‘free indirect style’ – where the narrative adopts the sentiments of the character – and partly through a furious act of control on Price’s part, to insist that the prose will be read as he intended. The use of commas toward the end of this passage is a good example.

…if the driver says one thing, goes one word over some invisible line, then without any change of expression, without any warning signs except maybe a slow straightening up, a sad/disgusted looking off, he steps back, reaches for the door handle, and the world as they knew it, is no more.

This also gives an idea of one possible criticism of Lush Life: there’s a neatness, or slickness, in the dialogue which can seem too polished, too screenplay. However this is an unworthy complaint: I would never complain about every line of a poem being too perfect, so to say the same of dialogue reflects on the level of my own expectations rather than the level of Price’s achievement. On top of the dialogue, Price is no slouch at calling up a great image in the main narrative when he wants to (Lower East Side has “canyonlike streets with their hanging garden of ancient fire escapes”).

In all this I have said nothing about the plot, which is best discovered page by page, but concerns Eric Cash, a 35-year-old restaurant worker with “no particular talent or skill, or what was worse, he had a little talent, some skill” and whose “unsatisfied yearning for validation was starting to make it near impossible for him to sit through a movie or read a book or even case out a new restaurant, all pulled off increasingly by those his age or younger, without wanting to run face-first into a wall.” There is a murder, at which Eric appears to be a witness, and then he becomes central to the police case; and the police are central to everything else. They serve as a nexus for the web of social groups which make up the Manhattan of the book, the overlapping – if not unifying – factor in the fields of humanity all pulling in different directions. Price’s presentation of the city in this way reminded me of Martin Amis’s London Fields.

The story then takes off in different directions, and at every stage the motivations and actions of characters seem thoroughly backed up by their psychology. Highlights of this include Eric’s transformation in the eyes of his colleagues at the restaurant, the splintering of the relationship between the murder victim’s father and his wife (the portrayal of Billy Marcus is masterly), and investigating officer Sergeant Matty Clark, who has his own problems with his sons. Power – father-son, police-suspect, media-public – is a theme throughout Lush Life. Clark reflects at one point:

He had known cops who had on occasion slept with witnesses, slept with suspected perps, confirmed perps, slept with the wives, sisters, and mothers of victims, and had even slept with the victims themselves if they recovered. You walk into lives abruptly turned inside out by the arbitrary malice of the world, and you, in your suit and tie, your heavy black shoes, your decent haircut, and your air of seriousness, you become the knight, the father, the protector…

A murder story has an inbuilt structure to it, which might seem like an easy way for a writer to get himself a book done: here’s the bones, just add meat. There is no doubt that Richard Price makes it look easy – that immersive world, the killer dialogue – but given that he took five years to write Lush Life, we can conclude that it was not the result of any easy cheat but of long hard work. Near the beginning of the book, and the beginning of the investigation, we have this:

Every cop was on the scene, every Night Watch, every plainclothes and uniform, was either on a cell phone calling in, calling out, calling up, or else feeding each other’s steno pad; Matty always taken by that, how you could literally see the narrative building right before your eyes in a cross-chorus of data: names, times, actions, quotes, addresses, phone number, run numbers, shield numbers.

That is Price’s gift: he lets us see how it all happens, line by line and scene by scene, “building right before your eyes,” but the achievement at the end, the view from the top, still seems entirely miraculous.

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17 Comments »

  1. I didn’t pick up a review copy of this I saw in a shop, having already exceeded my quota for the day. What was I thinking! We truly never regret the books we buy, only the ones we don’t. Great review John. As you probably know I have been working my way through The Wire and am now waiting, like an addict, for Amazon to send me the final season next week. I am in no small way very, VERY excited.

  2. The more I buy, more I want. I got a mile long TBR pile and I still continue buying books. And reaing such reviews is not going to help my resolve of not buying anything for the next three months. How do I hold on to it?

    BTW, I linked your blog with mine. Hope it is ok with you.

  3. Rob said,

    Actually, William, I must admit I’ve regretted a few of the books I’ve bought over the years…

    This does sound like an interesting one, though. Especially for the dialogue. This is another one for that vague list of titles that I won’t actually get now, but may get later, pending a whim.

  4. “Giddy piles of unread books” is the best turn of phrase I have read in awhile. In my case I think I am the giddy one with all my piles of unread books. I think I like to have them for when armageddon comes. I won’t lack for reading matter.

  5. CB James said,

    Speaking as a big fan of The Wire, and a sometimes fan of police procedurals, this sounds like a book I should look for.

  6. John Self said,

    I’ve yet to get around to watching The Wire, CB and William, and I am slightly concerned that it cannot possibly live up to the stellar praise it’s received: basically, unless I actually die of pleasure, I’ll be disappointed.

    Gautami, I am delighted for you to link here. Yes, he TBR pile is always a problem. I have – no doubt temporarily – stopped acquiring books as mine is really reaching ridiculous proportions. Like Candy, I have a notional fear of being without reading matter come some financial catastrophe when I can no longer afford to buy new books. Judging from the stock markets this week, that catastrophe could be closer than I thought.

  7. KevinfromCanada said,

    This book would definitely be my winner for the 2008 most often picked up, considered, added to the online list, never bought award. I love The Wire (my wife and I hold weekend festivals and watch one year at a time — beware, the last year is the worst) and I have certainly appreciated review links between that and Lush Life. I have also been interested that what I would interpret as the confluence between the two — the finish of the cult series, this book — has produced an interest in Price in the literary journals.

    Having said all that, I think I will come back to this review in February and consider, yet again, ordering the book at that point. John’s review, as usual, is excellent — it tells me that this is one I can wait for.

  8. Alan said,

    I like this: ‘ like Candy, I have a notional fear of being without reading matter come some financial catastrophe when I can no longer afford to buy new books.’ It provides me with an excuse for what I do anyway.

    A brief bit of background regarding Richard Price’s novels for anyone who has come to him from The Wire. (Incidentally I’ve seen some good reviews for the new George Pelecanos – another writer on The Wire – Turnaround. Has anyone read any of his books?)

    Richard Price wrote his first book The Wanderers in 1974 when he was 24. This was closely followed by Bloodbrothers (1976) and Ladies Man (1978). They are about, in very general terms, growing up and (slowly) becoming an adult in one of the Boroughs of New York. The fourth time Price had written about his life – his words – was The Breaks (1983) and completes his ‘early bad efforts’ (again, his words).

    I love the ‘early bad efforts’ and have read them until I can’t see myself reading them again for a very long time. The Wanderers gets much praise, and rightly so, however I really like them all and love The Breaks.

    Then come the crime ones. Clockers (c.1993), Freedomland (c.1998) – these I’ve read. Clockers I vaguely remember being really good, Freedomland disappointing – and Samaritan (c.2002) and Lush Life reviewed above by John.

    The later ones get the press (especially since The Wire), but the early ones are definitely worth reading.

  9. John Self said,

    Thanks Alan – a valuable digest. I admit that I hadn’t really considered his older books. I think The Wanderers is or was available in a paperback ‘modern classics’ edition from Bloomsbury, isn’t it, with a monochrome cover? Must look out for that.

  10. stu said,

    John – thanks for the ‘heads up’ on Lush Life. In the not so distant future I will spend many hours in the twilight zone of aircraft and airports so I’m on the look out for some supplies! Re: the wire. I say take the risk of it not living up to the praise (Wire lovers will know that there is no risk). Even if you don’t keel over in a moment of sublime TV ecstasy – you’ll not regret the time spent!

    Merlin Mann has just posted an interesting piece on the wire and story arc over at 43 folders which you might find interesting – be warned he is also a wire evangelist! See: http://www.43folders.com

  11. John Self said,

    Thanks Stu. Coincidentally I read Lush Life mainly in airports and trains, which enabled me to get through its 450 pages in two days. I think immersing myself in it like this really added to the experience for me.

    I was interested, and pleased, to see that in Waterstone’s in Belfast the book is not being stocked in the crime section but on the general fiction tables. I know you’re a crime fan, but many aren’t and it would be a shame for people to overlook the book because of its loose genre.

    Thanks for the Merlin Mann link. I hope it doesn’t contain any spoilers!

  12. Great review John, I suspect I’ll start with Clockers which seems to be his original great work, but you’ve certainly inventivised me to take a closer look at him. I’ve seen very varying reviews of his work, it’s nice to see a positive one that details why the work is worth engaging with as you do here.

  13. [...] of Clockers and the screenplay for The Colour of Money, Ransom and Shaft, his recent Lush Life was highly praised by Mr Self and of course he’s been a writer for the greatest TV show ever – The Wire. [...]

  14. [...] but I never got around to taking a chance on him until last year when he published a new novel, Lush Life – which quickly ended up in my Best of Year list. He now occupies that rare pedestal, a new [...]

  15. Sam said,

    It’s a shame that the most interesting and well-realised character in the book – Yolonda, Detective Matty Clark’s partner – pretty much disappears for the second half of the book.

    The plot’s formulaic, the characters are in the main drawn to type, but the language – slippery, supple, suggestive – carried me through to the end. And considering it’s a 455-page book, that’s not an insignificant achievement.

  16. [...] Price, Lush Life : “seems entirely miraculous … I fell for the reviewerly cliché of really wanting the [...]

  17. […] Price, Lush Life : “seems entirely miraculous … I fell for the reviewerly cliché of really wanting the book to […]


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