Richard Price has been around for a while, but I’m just now discovering him, thanks to Toby. Most people know him as Tobias Wolff. All right, let’s quit pretending I’m buds with a modern literary icon. A friend asked him for book recommendations at a lecture, and he said anything by Richard Price, so I picked up Freedomland. I also put myself on the waiting list for his latest, Lush Life, at the library. So, yeah, he may become my literary discovery for this year. Not that he’s a discovery for most people, I guess. Anyone who has a number of prestigious books and an academy award screenwriting nomination (for The Color of Money) to his credit can’t be considered a rookie. But to Freedomland.
At first, this seemed like a high-quality urban thriller/detective novel. It reminded me of the realistic grit you find in such TV series as The Wire or The Shield. Lots of moral ambiguity.
Cops with problems sometimes almost as serious as the criminals. A white woman (sort of a wannabe black) who works in a tutoring program in a New Jersey black ghetto project presents with injuries, explaining that a black man carjacked her vehicle which contains her four-year-old son. The said project is literally across the street from a predominantly white community, and tensions are always high.
Enter a recovering addict of a fiftyish detective with asthma who has lived/worked in the project all his life and enter as well a freelance lady reporter who walks a tightrope between the criminal and law enforcement communities trying to dig out stories. She doesn’t really write her stories, though, just phones facts and quotes to a copy editor who puts them into printable prose. So there’s a question whether she’s really a reporter or just kind of a voyeur and gossip.
Anyhow, as the investigation continues, it slowly becomes apparent that the crime and its fallout is both magnet and metaphor for seething social and racial conflicts endemic to modern America. In other words, it’s not just another mystery. The Freedomland of the title is a defunct New York theme park, whose copycat New Jersey version is also defunct. Decaying relics of a philosophical ideal turned commercial, then turned four paws in the air. A tawdry manikin of an angel figures prominently in the story and brings religion into the social/political picture. Most every principal in Freedomland tells at least one important lie at some point, which exacerbates the already raw miscommunication and misapprehension inherent in a situation where white cops bust into a black community jamming everyone about the fate of a white child when there are plenty of crimes against black children which have received little or no attention.
Finally, it becomes apparent that the crime and its various aftermaths are not really what the story is about at all. Price gives us a long denouement, which places the events of the novel in the context of the characters’ lives and makes it clear that though the mystery itself has been solved, little or nothing of the issues it highlighted have been ameliorated at all. There’s no warm feeling that at least in the midst of all the grimness we’ve found the possibility of a Rodney King universe where we can all just get along.
Yet, Freedomland is strangely positive. For all their failures and misfires, Price’s characters achieve a kind of nobility in their striving. Flawed as their characters and their efforts might be, they refuse to sit down and put their feet up or to flee to greener pastures. Futile as it might seem, the front lines is where they–and probably we–all belong.