My wait for Lush Life after placing a library hold on it set a personal record, I’m sure, though I didn’t count the days. When you request the hold, they tell you how many people are ahead of you waiting for how many copies, and I think there were more than 60 in line for less than 10 copies. When a book is that popular, I wonder if my taste is slipping slowly (or not so slowly) into the depths of mass culture. My introspection didn’t last long, though, once I got started on the book. Contrary to the tenets of some in the literary establishment, there’s no crime in writers like Richard Price and John Lescroat and Elmore Leonard writing exciting, action-driven novels which combine the excitement of excellent crime fiction with deep and telling character and cultural insight. Lush Life does that perhaps as well as it can be done.
recognition to go along with his literary accomplishments. I love The Wire, though I don’t watch it as much as I’d like because my wife finds it too violent. My initial foray into Price’s literary pages was Freedomland (see my June 11, 2008, blog if you’re interested in my take on that one.) Lush Life is even better.
Detective Matty Clark, of course, has a murder to solve. Working out of a precinct on the lower East Side of Manhattan, Clark and his colleagues have to sift through a complex mix of thugs, project victims, upper class slummers, and recent gentry immigrants into the historic neighborhood. There’s also the history of the place to consider–a conglomeration of immigrant tenements cum artist lofts or modern project slums. Since the murder is of a young white man, drunk, shot in a robbery attempt in full view of two also-inebriated companions, the investigation necessarily traces its way through the full wilderness of the area.
Throw in a family conflict for Matty, who was not built for family life, with his ex-wife and two sons, now living upstate, and you have a setup that is some hands could be a cliche, but under Price’s masterful fingers becomes a potent comment on the culture clashes of our time as well as an exploration of characters in extremis.
The story lines fan out as the investigation expands farther and farther into the environment of the complex neighborhoods surrounding the crime scene. The victim’s father becomes nearly psychotic in his determination to insert himself into the action. Clark holds him off at first, then uses him as upper echelons of the department endeavor to sideline the investigation. One of the victim’s partners degenerates into self-destruction as remorse over his cowardly behavior on the night of the crime combines with ongoing low self-esteem. An array of virtuous and predatory young black and hispanic victims and perpetrators join the crowd surrounding the crime. And so on. Price seems to suggest that even if you can hide from the police, you can’t hide from yourself. Or–more properly complex–even if you can hide from yourself the fact that you’re trying to hide from yourself, and even if you think you’ve hidden yourself from yourself, there are plenty of people who have had you figured out all along.
And a word about language. I suppose the idioms Price’s characters use are current, but I haven’t heard many of them, and I wonder if Price isn’t making up his own language. Doesn’t matter. It’s so effective, you get drawn in completely. And then there’s dialogue. Check out this interrogation scene:
“Tristan, you grew up around here?”
“Yeah.” Staring at his treats. “Some.”
“Your mother had problems?”
“I don’t know.”
“You lived with her?”
“How old were you when you moved out?”
“Which moved out.”
“The first moved out.”
“And why was that?”
“Why did you have to go?”
“I don’t know.”
Now, we’ve spent quite a lot of time with Tristan before this scene. Know his current family situation, but not much of his history. Yet, I didn’t get the sense as I often do, that the author has been holding information back because it would be most effective at this point in the novel, even though it would logically have been running through the character’s head and should have been revealed to us long before. These are life history facts Tristan conceals from himself, reveals to the police only under the most stressful circumstances. the “what’s” and “I don’t know’s” are not just evasions of the detective’s questions, but true attempts to avoid the pain that these memories cause. Note in addition, the gerund phrases such as “staring at his treats,” instead of the more conventional “Tristan stared at his treats.” It’s a device Price uses throughout to keep the psychological and physical action flowing and present, even though the surrounding narrative itself is in the past tense. Note also the “What’s” and “Which moved out” sans question marks to indicate that they aren’t really questions but defensive maneuvers on the order of a boxer throwing up a hand to block a jab.
Finally, the comedy. One of the elements of the precinct is the crew that cruises in a supposedly undercover vehicle painted as a “Quality of Life” taxicab company. So poor is the disguise that a driver once pulls up beside the cab, addresses the occupants as “officers,” and asks for directions. The lack of concealment sometimes works for, sometimes against, the team, but they’re always good for a snicker both from their bumbling and their dialogue.
Adding to my enjoyment of this complete package was the time we spent on the Lower East Side during our recent trip to New York. There’s a tenement museum which I hadn’t known about but highly recommend as a must-see on a par with the Met and the Guggenheim because it gives such a wonderful hands-on insight into the lives and physical quarters of those who passed through Ellis Island and into Manhattan wilderness. Wandering around the area, we gained at least a passing acquaintance with many of the streets and flavors Price describes in Lush Life, and so it was in the end a good thing it took so long for the library to get me the book. Even without that knowledge, though, every reader will walk away from this book richer for the read. Get yourself on the list post haste.