I began reading Lush Life, Richard Price’s latest gritty, city-wise novel, because of other reviews, almost all of which are laudatory, and because Price was an occasional contributing writer of the magnificent HBO series, “The Wire,” the demise of which has left me bereft. The New York Times, in particular, spent an inordinate amount of ink on this book. Let’s look at why the critics have been gushing.
Price is the author of The Wanderers, Clockers and Freedomland, all of which have been much praised as books and movies. If you haven’t read any of those books, here are two longish quotes to give you a taste of his style. Perhaps you’ll see why Price should be read slowly and with savor, although you will want to rush to the end higgledy-piggeldy to find out what happens.
As a rule he is soft-spoken, leaning in to the driver’s window to conversate, to explain, his expression baggy with patience, going eye to eye as if to make sure what he’s explicating here is being digested, seemingly deaf to the obligatory sputtering, the misdemeanors of verbal abuse, but … if the driver says that 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.And later:
…leaving Matty in the middle of the room with a cardboard box of 61s and 5s and no backup except, maybe out of pity, Yolonda; everyone else tacitly avoiding him on this one like a landlocked Ahab, like an ass-pain Ancient Mariner, like he had halitosis of the brain.[I just want to point out that I just used the word “savor” for the second time since starting these reviews for Murder By the Book. I just want it out there in case anyone is keeping track. Not that I’m equating myself with her, but the mysterious Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times’s chief book reviewer, has been castigated for using the word “limn” too frequently, and I just want to be ahead of whoever out there is keeping count of such things. By the way, I had to look “limn” up.]
Lush Life is Price’s song of life in the city that never sleeps. In fact, sleeplessness begins the tale. Early one morning Ike is shot dead. Eric, one of his two companions, tells Matty and Yolonda, the detectives assigned to the case, that two young men tried to rob them and one of them shot Ike. Is he telling the truth? Further witnesses come forward to say they only saw three white men and not the two alleged dark-skinned robbers. Steven, the third man, is so intoxicated he has to be hospitalized, so it’s left to Eric and the other witnesses to repeat and repeat their stories to the point of fatigue, the detectives listening while their own fugue deepens. In the process of investigating the shooting, Ike’s father, Billy, is introduced. We watch while he struggles with an overload of emotion and guilt, estranging himself from the rest of his family. Other peripheral but fully defined characters help us understand Eric, Matty, and Billy.
Complicating the story are opportunities the detectives miss to solve the case and tactics they use which backfire. Also, little side stories highlighting New York City and its eccentricities pop up to flesh out the sad/mad world of Lush Life. All this adds to the realism and tension of the story. Price writes with such authenticity about a city he both loves and censures.
People don’t really get what’s coming to them in the end so much as wander into their destiny. There’s a certain untidiness to it, but perhaps that is as it should be in a book that echoes with such realism. One can imagine the characters in Price’s book living out the final lines of Billy Strayhorn’s classic song:
I’ll live a lush life in some small dive,
And there I’ll be, while I rot
With the rest of those whose lives are lonely, too.