Lush Life

Three men saunter down a street: one stoic, one drunk, and one brash. Two shadowy guttersnipes approach, demanding their wallets at gunpoint. The stoic, no dummy, hands his hard-earned loot over. The drunk collapses onto the sidewalk. But the brash one replies, “Not tonight, my man,” and is plugged with a .22.

Like many other Richard Price novels, Lush Life‘s crime kick-starts a gloomy glissade across the snaky parquet of the underworld. Price’s first novel was a grisly coming-of-age tale, The Wanderers, portraying grit and gang-banging and earning raves from the likes of Hubert Selby Jr. But his work was taken more seriously when he expanded his repertoire and began driving down barren avenues of socioeconomic aggregate. With Clockers, Price became something of an anthropologist, chronicling not only the intricate manner in which drugs were distributed, but also the impact that these crimes had on all parties. Strike, the young hustler pushing bottles of cocaine on the streets, was not altogether different from the alcoholic cop pursuing him.

Like Clockers, Lush Life‘s violent act is committed offstage, with subsequent pages corralling the facts. Cops and suspects allemande and strip the willow, losing themselves in a landscape inflexible to their gangland two-step. It’s the novel as street journalism, with Price dancing a mean and steady beat. This frenetic toe-tapping may be necessary. Because instead of the fictitious Dempsey, New Jersey, explored in his previous novels, Price has returned more closely to home, plunging into the Lower East Side’s more palpable tableau.

The aforementioned stoic is 35-year-old Eric Cash. Like many artistic types who flee to New York, Cash is working on a screenplay with sketchy remuneration while struggling as a manager at a quasi-Rococo cafe. After the shooting, a tag team of cops, “arguing like an old couple with a road map,” take Cash in for questioning. In a protracted interrogation scene — one of the book’s bravura moments — Cash is humored, humiliated, accused, recused, and eventually let loose. He returns to his den and feeds his screenplay into a barbecue, his soul equally scorched. But Cash isn’t a Johnny-come-lately. At work, he pockets dollars from the tip pool. He retreats into rat-infested cellars for drugs and debauchery. Not once does he ask if Ike Marcus — the brash man with the “Not tonight” quip — is okay.

This Rashomon-like examination permits Price to flex his topographical chops — no small feat considering the Lower East Side’s rapid redevelopment. When Cash goes to work, Price describes “that whooshy rush of space and geometric perfection, suggesting a gloomy ideal within his daily grind at the restaurant. Cash’s work — his way of embracing the city’s new energy through the comforts of routine — offers a reference point, a place to set up shop for the time being, but it’s offset by the crumbling edifices that tax money and abandoned progressive idealism couldn’t provide for. A precinct station is described as “an octagonal Lindsay-era, siege-mentality fortress set down on razed lung-block acreage like a spiked fist aimed at the surrounding projects.” Price’s New York is a polymorphic playground dwarfed by the vertiginous forces of gentrification. High-rises are “massive futuristic structures without any distinguishing features other than their blind climbing endlessness.” The Tombs, Manhattan’s main detention center, is “a life-size gameboard of Chutes and Ladders.” And if the purpose behind this game isn’t readily apparent, Price imbues one view of the streets with endless shifting, describing it as “an aerial checkerboard of demolition and rehabilitation.”

But while location may be everything for this more commercial city, there is distinctive life — the quirks of the people who live here — in danger of being extinguished. And in Lush Life, even Price’s fleeting characters are imbued with striking characteristics. “Two young crew-cut women wearing paint-splattered farmer johns” order food. A New York Post reporter investigating police indiscretions wears “a kelly green yarmulke emblazoned with the New York Jets logo.” A detective is “fat and transparently unguent like the villain in a spaghetti western.” A random stranger running into Cash in an alley is a “stork-thin nutter in a homemade burnoose.” These people are covered, smudged, marked up, and transformed into cartoons because of their choice to live in New York. But given New York’s rapid development, they may not have a choice.

Price’s work has long been fueled by an often bloodthirsty sense of the absurd: a teenager’s senseless death after hurling himself across a roof in The Wanderers, the cheery and avuncular racism of Bloodbrothers‘ Chubby, and the Portnoyesque neuroses of Ladies’ Man‘s amorous hero. But Price’s comic instincts have muted over the years. This is a pity, because had Lush Life embraced more exuberance, the relationship between the city and its inhabitants might have taken on more dimension. Nevertheless, Price’s giddiness is here in flashes, as when the fuzz, after brutally interrogating Cash, try to sweet-talk him into ID-ing the suspect, or when a memorial service for the murder victim is seized upon by opportunistic journalists.

Some of Price’s phrasings embrace a literary decorum that isn’t always compatible with his innate streetwise voice. The squad room features “dust motes drifting above the sea of vacant cluttered desks,” but this mixed metaphor is at odds with Price’s punchy delivery. He gets more out of eye-popping noun phrases like “human pi?ata” or a mouth described as “a curtain of saliva.” He’s better able to sustain his prosody with pulpish illiteration such as Cash”s “humiliation hanging there like hanks of hair.” A reporter may “hear the porcelain squeak of Billy’s clenched teeth,” but this slightly awkward approximate rhyme parrots one roughneck’s “Beatbook,” which contains such free-form folderol as “King of hell / Know him well / I walk right in / don’t ring the bell.”

The chatter between two young suspects who may be behind the thwarted robbery — Tristran and Little Dap — at one point concerns itself with the actor Terence Howard, but the duo cites films from eight years ago (Big Momma’s House and The Best Man), leaving one to wonder if Lush Life had been fermenting for too long a time. There’s also the curious question of why two contemporary teenagers would seek street cred by citing a 30-something supporting actor. This misstep is disappointing, because the duo has great potential. Early in the book, Little Dap reveals to Tristran a wrinkled blue check that he’s carried in his back pocket as a joke. Little Dap collected the check from a mugging victim who didn’t have any cash on him. Tristran points out, “But if they find it on you, it’s like evidence, right?” There is then an uncomfortable silence and the check is, quite amusingly, never unfurled again.

The “novel sitting in a drawer” theory is also suggested by close similarities between characters in Lush Life and Price’s previous books. Yolanda, the rougher of the two cops who question Cash, is first portrayed as a tough-as-nails detective. But midway through the book, she gets a startling empathic makeover and comes to resemble Nerese Ammons, the compassionate detective in Price’s previous novel, Samaritan. Both Yolanda and Nerese show compassion for a youth who has quite flagrantly committed a crime. Both Yolanda and Nerese investigate an apartment and find it unexpectedly immaculate. This leaves one to wonder which character served as the prototype.

Characters are often described pausing a beat, as if Lush Life isn’t so much a work of fiction but more of a film treatment for the inevitable screen adaptation. Price’s characters also rely on such bemused responses as “What?” and “Excuse me?” in response to declarations. Price may be suggesting that these characters cannot accept permanence in a changing metropolis. And while these asides are initially charming, when “What?” appears four times on a single page, this stylistic tic becomes grating.

In a 1981 essay, Price described himself as “the Fonzie of literature.” While Lush Life is by no means a bad book, some of the glaring incongruities come perilously close to jumping the shark, much like Fonzie himself. Samaritan’s complex excavation of empathy has been replaced by a wild but exacting quarryman shoveling up a city that is cruelly stubbing out the glorious grit that remains. And if Price isn’t careful with his next volume, he may extinguish his much-needed red-blooded flame.