SAMARITAN

By Richard Price

Knopf. 377 pp. $25

The distinguishing characteristic of Richard Price's novels, of which Samaritan is the seventh, is that they are set in places not often visited by writers of American literary fiction: the rotting inner cores of the country's older cities and the dilapidated suburbs on their immediate edges. He knows the dirty streets, the rundown housing projects, the struggling schools, the storefronts and corners where drug dealers hang out, the cheap restaurants that ladle out tasteless food. He is a sympathetic but clear-eyed observer of life as it's lived in these places, and the praise lavished upon his earlier novels -- most notably Freedomland and Clockers -- by and large has been deserved.

Price's fiction has a distinctly cinematic character, which is scarcely surprising when one considers that he is the author of many screenplays, among them "Ransom," "Sea of Love" and "The Color of Money," all notable for exceptionally convincing dialogue in the hard-boiled style. Writers who work in that genre usually do so at a certain intellectual remove -- if they were hard-boiled and nothing more, they'd more likely be crooks or cops than novelists -- but the best of them manage to avoid intellectual slumming and create vivid, convincing depictions of places where middle-class readers rarely venture.

Having recently reread several novels by George V. Higgins, I am disinclined to include Price among those working at the very top of this admirable and misunderstood genre. He is no Higgins, he is no Dashiell Hammett, and he is certainly no Raymond Chandler. But he is good, and his work commands respect. His characters are (mostly) complex and multidimensional, he eschews preaching at just about every turn, and he has an eye for interesting themes.

But it must be said -- albeit with regret -- that in Samaritan he falls short. The novel does have its interesting aspects, but it is far too long, far too talky and far too self-indulgent. At its core is a matter well worth exploring -- the distinction between the genuine desire to give to others, i.e., the instinct of the true Good Samaritan, and the rather less noble urge to pat oneself on the back -- but the reader has to punch through a lot of padding to get to that core. Samaritan is one of those novels in which people talk on and on and on, not so much to say anything as merely to hear themselves talk. Life sometimes is like that, and to the extent that Price is trying to represent this reality, he's doing something worthwhile; but what can be boring in actuality can be even more boring on the printed page, so be prepared to be bored for long stretches of Samaritan.

Its protagonist is Ray Mitchell, now in his early forties. His employment history, in the words of a private investigator who looks into his past, is "somewhat interesting," which is to say eccentric: "From '87 to '90 he was a public school teacher, English, Fannie Lou Hamer High School in the Bronx. Then from '90 to '93 he was driving a cab for an outfit called Orion, then from '93 to '95, get this, he was a polygrapher for an outfit, also New York, called Truth and Justice, did mostly employment screens, then from '95 to '97 he was back driving a cab for two garages. . . . From '98 to 2001 he worked out in LA for a company called Satchmo Productions, was a staff writer on that TV show 'Brokedown High.' "

For this last he was paid $4,000 a week and was nominated for (though he did not win) an Emmy. Now he has tossed the television job and come back to the place in New Jersey where he grew up, a town called Dempsy across the Hudson River from New York City. Essentially, the town is one big housing project in which even the private developments have the feel of public ones: big, cold, characterless, lifeless. It was there that, a quarter-century ago, Ray graduated from Paulus Hook High School, and it is to Paulus Hook that he has returned. He has volunteered to teach creative writing to any kids interested in the subject.

He ends up with a grand total of seven, none of whom probably would have shown up had they not been browbeaten into it by the principal, who is understandably embarrassed that the rest of his charges have looked this gift horse in the mouth and taken a pass. One would think Ray would pick up on the message this quite obviously sends, but he's so deeply into his Samaritan mode that all he can see is the warm light he's casting on the world, and on Paulus Hook High in particular. As his ex-wife puts it: "He always says 'I just want to make a dent.' But what he really wants to do is make a splash. There's a big difference."

In particular, Ray is into helping blacks. He shells out several grand to pay for the funeral of a young black man, he plays "some kind of mentor-muse-patron of the arts" to a manipulative black con artist, he has an affair with a woman of mixed racial ancestry. None of which sits well with his old schoolmate Nerese Ammons, a black woman now winding down her career as a police officer by looking into a violent beating that has left Ray badly injured but adamantly refusing to identify his assailant:

"The constant black-white casting made her uncomfortable -- no, made her angry; but that anger was tempered by the knowledge that this compulsion in him wasn't really about race; that the element of race, the chronic hard times and neediness of poor blacks and Latinos was primarily a convenience here, the schools and housing projects of Dempsy and other places like a stocked pond in which he could act out his selfish selflessness over and over whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself, and that he was so driven by this need, so swept away by it, that he would heedlessly, helplessly risk his life to see it played out each and every time until he finally drew the ace of spades, or swords, and got the obituary that would vindicate him, bring tears to his eyes; key word 'beloved,' if only he could figure out some way to come back from the dead long enough to read it."

That's tough stuff, absolutely bang on the money about people who confuse charity with self-gratification. It's not that Ray's a bad man, and, as Nerese puts it, "who in this life wasn't carrying around a suitcase of hidden agendas, of ulterior motives?" Rather it's that he is self-deluded. He thinks he is coming back to Dempsy to help those who can't help themselves, he thinks he wants to be a real father to the daughter from whom divorce separated him, but what he's mostly doing is giving himself the gold star.

Price's portrait of him is complex, sympathetic and unsparing. It's a solid kernel at the heart of a soft novel. The satisfaction of discovering it is real, but -- for me though perhaps not for thee -- not worth the endless slog of getting there. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.