September 19, 2008
Richard Price: Lush Life
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.