By Richard Price
Farrar Straus Giroux. 455 pp. $26
Richard Price's new novel is set in 2002 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood that is not so much a melting pot as a cauldron of volatile elements that can be set off with the slightest spark. Among its uneasy mix of gentrifying yuppies, Chinese immigrants and beleaguered Latino and African-American residents, the peace is kept by the NYPD, whose Quality of Life Task Force implements the city's zero tolerance ethos under the motto "Everyone's got something to lose."
In the electrifying opening chapters of Lush Life, one person turns out to have everything to lose: Ike Marcus, a young white bartender at a swank local restaurant. After a long night of drinking, Ike, a would-be writer, is gunned down when he answers a mugger's demand for his wallet by saying, "Not tonight, my man." (A detective wryly refers to this sort of bravado as "Suicide by mouth.") Accompanying Ike were two other East Village scenesters, an aspiring actor named Steven Boulware, who survives the attack apparently because he was falling-down drunk, and Eric Cash, the manager at Ike's restaurant.
Eric, whose frustrated literary ambitions have left him saddled with an "unsatisfied yearning for validation," provides the police with the initial account of the crime, claiming to have escaped Ike's fate because he turned over his wallet. His testimony is sufficiently sketchy to raise the suspicion of Matty Clark and Yolonda Bello, two veteran detectives who catch the case. Eyewitnesses also challenge Eric's account. In a gripping interrogation sequence, Yolonda and Matty slowly wear down the stunned witness, ultimately accusing him of killing the younger man in a burst of booze-fueled envy. Eric is so unnerved by their going-over that he can only respond by doing "something that genuinely shocked Matty. With his mouth locked in a rictus grin, he rose to his feet and extended his wrists."
It would seem to be an open-and-shut case, but this is Richard Price, who in novels such as Clockers and Freedomland has shown himself to be more interested in exploring the complex social and psychological ramifications of crime than in simply cuffing the perps. Soon after Eric's arrest, Boulware wakes from his blackout to tell a tale of his own, while the eyewitnesses who implicated Eric in the crime turn out to be less than reliable. After keeping the reader in the dark for the first third of the book, Price reveals the truth of the matter, transforming his narrative from a whodunit into a police procedural where the mystery is not what happened, but what will happen next. It is a move that keeps Lush Life from achieving the gut-churning power promised in those fine opening chapters. Perhaps if Price had not dangled the prospect of a mystery before us, his decision to abandon it so early would not have produced the sense of deflation that ultimately pervades the book.
That said, Lush Life remains a vivid study of contemporary urban landscape. Price's knowledge of his Lower East Side locale is positively synoptic, from his take on its tenements, haunted by the ghosts of the Jewish dead and now crammed with poor Asian laborers, to the posh clubs and restaurants, where those inclined can drink "a bottle of $250 Johnnie Walker Blue Label" or catch "a midnight puppet porno show." In this "Candyland of a neighborhood," where kids from all over the nation come to "walk around starring in the movie of their lives," it is hardly surprising that an ambitious suburban boy believes he can front up to armed muggers and live to write a treatment about it.
Price's ear for dialogue is equally sharp. When a young student who witnessed the murder expresses shock that the detective interviewing her can quote T.S. Eliot, the beleaguered cop deadpans that "the apes that raised me were surprisingly intelligent." Officer Lugo, a member of the Quality of Life Task Force, explains to a just-arrested drug addict that he will cut him some slack only if the suspect gives up another criminal. "We keep wanting to help you out, man. . . . But it's a two-way river." When another suspect complains to Lugo that his sidekick is "like half-retarded," the cop immediately wonders: "How about the other half?"
In the end, Lush Life is most effective as a study of sudden crime and its lingering aftermath. Price depicts the corrosive effect of Ike's murder upon his family, particularly his father Billy Marcus, who lurches between anger and depression as he searches for some sort of redemption, never understanding that "there would be no relief for him from that grinding sense of anticipation he'd carried in his gut for the last few days, that no matter what came down the line, what measures of justice were ultimately portioned out, what memorials or scholarship funds established, whatever new children would come into his life, he would always carry in himself that grueling sensation of waiting: for a tranquil heart, for his son to stop messing around and reappear, for his own death."
Near the book's end, Billy forms a surprising emotional connection with the unsentimental Matty, who uses Billy's grief as inspiration to reach out to his own estranged sons. In this most diverse of neighborhoods, Price suggests that violence and the sorrow it creates are the only sure ways to bring people together. *
Stephen Amidon's most recent novel is "Human Capital."