Monday, May 4, 2009

Lush Life

The Lower East Side is the last neighborhood in Manhattan to gentrify, the last outpost of the Dinkins aministration surviving into Bloomberg's administration. The characters in Richard Price's novel Lush Life, set below Delancey Stret in the fall of 2003, discuss how the neighborhood is changing, and, though none of them like that, none of them would live anywhere else. Price populates this neighborhood with all of the familiar types - wisecracking cops, aging Orthodox Jews, Arab deli owners, hip white gentrifiers, Chinese immigrants, and poor black kids from the projects strung along the East River like a Maginot line. Throughout the novel, each of these groups gets pushed around by the others, and, once in a while, pushes back, often with unpredictable consequences. Readers familiar with HBO's The Wire (to which Price contributed numerous teleplays) will recognize the top-to-bottom view of urban life, and note-perfect ear for dialogue that Price displays in this novel.

Walking home from a night of drinking with two co-workers he's only just met, a white aspiring-actor/fusion restaurant-bartender is shot when he foolishly stands up to a mugger during a robbery attempt. The only eyewitness sober enough to remember anything is Eric Cash, the victim's friend and co-worker, who has a past he's not proud of and conveniently says that two young black kids did it. Well, maybe one of them was hispanic. Cash's checkered past, and the race of the alleged perpetrators cast his credibility into doubt, and Cash's grueling, 70-page interrogation, which breaks Cash as a man but leaves the police no closer to closing the case, is as masterful of a setpiece as you're ever going to read. The reader knows the shooter's identity from the outset; the conflict in this novel comes from watching the police follow dead-end leads while precious time muddies the memories of the witnesses and corrupts the scant physical evidence that exists. Those tensions drive the plot forward, but its the emotional reversals that effect this novel's dozen or so main characters, and not the plot, that make this such compelling reading.

As with The Wire, Price fills the margins of the narrative chock-full of detail, from the way in which the Mayor's office and the honchos as 1 Police Plaza want to keep the murder quiet lest it freeze the gentrification of Manhattan's last slum in its tracks, to the Orthodox rabbi who doubles as the neighborhood's power broker, to the wealthy restauranteur who is as generous to his friends as he is tight-fisted in his business dealings, to the Latinos lining up to see the image of the Virgin Mary in the frost on an Arab Bodega's freezer, to the real estate tycoon who's lived in his rent-controlled building for so long that he only pays $350 a month in rent, to the team of 'quality of life' police officers whose job it is to clean up the neighborhood, one crackpipe, prostitute, and dazzling set piece at a time:

"Restless, they finally pull out to honeycomb the narrow streets for an hour of endless tight right turns: falafel joint, jazzjoint, 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. Leather outlet, leather outlet, leather outlet, corner. Bar, school, bar, school, People's Park, corner. Tyson mural, Celia Cruz mural, Lady Di mural, corner. Bling shop, barbershop, car service, corner. And then finally, on a sooty stretch of Eldridge, something with potential: a weary-faced Fujianese in a thin Members Only windbreaker, cigarette hanging, plastic bags dangling from crooked fingers like full waterbuckets, truging up the dark, narrow street followed by a limping black kid half a block behind."

Some critics have written that the novel is a collection of brilliant set pieces tat don't necessarily hang together as well as a number of Price's other novels. They may very well have a point, but when the set pieces are as brilliant as these, and the characters, setting and atmosphere are all so true to life, a little choppiness in the narrative is more than forgivable. If, like me, you are suffering from Wire withdrawal, Price's novel provides much-needed medicine.

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