Apr/May 2008

Inner-City Muse

With his fourth novel set on America's mean streets, Richard Price lays claim to the title of urban laureate.

James Gibbons


Richard Price's fictional North Jersey city of Dempsy has evolved, over the course of the novels Clockers (1992), Freedomland (1998), and Samaritan (2003), into a kind of Yoknapatawpha County of postindustrial blight. A vividly detailed mosaic of littered boulevards, dingy fast-food joints, and snake-pit housing projects, Dempsy is a jittery banlieue of not-so-benign neglect, a no-go zone for all but its mostly African-American residents, the police, and the customers who effortlessly cop drugs from the project kids without ever leaving their cars. Both "the city of my own imagination," in Price's words, and a place meant "to stand in for every urban mid-sized area in the country," Dempsy is a fusion of elements daringly invented and those meticulously drawn from life.

Like New York in the hackneyed song, Dempsy is a state of mind. It's evident that Price, not least because of his exquisitely sensitive ear for dialogue, puts in a good deal of legwork to research his novels, but ultimately, despite the care he takes to get things right, he is more interested in the roiling mindsets of his characters than in sweeping sociological judgments or in documentary truth. "Everybody after Clockers and Freedomland associates my work with some kind of journalistic realism," he told an interviewer in 2003. "It's all made up. I might have spent an awful lot of time and known the parameters of reality so I can lie responsibly . . . but it's all fiction." Elsewhere, he puts the distinction bluntly: "The novels are novels; they're not documentaries."

Price's association with a tough brand of eye-on-the-street realism has in part persisted because the arrestingly credible portrayal of the underclass in his novels—instead of the caricatures in most movies and television and much of what now passes for news—made him an obvious choice to write several fine episodes of HBO's The Wire. A superlative marriage of storytelling and thinly veiled reportage, The Wire anatomizes the slow death of an American city (Baltimore, a sort of Dempsy-on-the-Chesapeake) from the vantage of a godlike sociologist; it offers the rare aesthetic experience in which tendentiousness actually feeds and sustains dramatic and novelistic satisfactions. Price's own fiction, however, operates somewhat differently, even if its depiction of what used to be called "the other America" is in tune with many of The Wire's dispiriting conclusions. Price's social commentary is mostly implicit, and when it breaks out into the open, as in the following passage from Clockers, the narrator's dead-on observation is not a pronouncement made from outside the psychological ambit of the author's characters but rather one that illuminates how such people experience their world:

The walls of the waiting room were hung with black-and-white cautionary posters, encircling Strike with admonitions, the subjects ranging from AIDS to pregnancy to crack to alcohol, each one a little masterpiece of dread. Strike hated posters. If you were poor, posters followed you everywhere—health clinics, probation offices, housing offices, day care centers, welfare offices—and they were always blasting away at you with warnings to do this, don't do that, be like this, don't be like that, smarten up, control this, stop that.

It's a convincing but hardly new insight that the ostensibly concerned messages of public-health campaigns also aim to control and discipline the populace. More important here is how Price conveys the effect of the barrage of state-sponsored admonishments on Strike, the conflicted teenage drug dealer at the center of the novel. Strike is perceptive enough to see that the scolding bureaucratic epigraphs gracing the day-care center and the probation office, notwithstanding the distinct constituencies they purport to serve, take part in the same distrustful social agenda; the sheer ubiquity of the posters outweighs anything specific they might say. The tenor of the hatred he feels toward them, hovering unsteadily between resigned irritation and ripe paranoia ("posters followed you everywhere"), gets at something essential about his volatility and angry intelligence, as well as about the particular emotional weather that ensues when one knows that one is, and always will be, singled out as a member of a so-called at-risk population.

Dempsy's effective abandonment by the social order is all the more pointed because it lies a mere path trip away from Manhattan but could just as well be on a distant star. Some of Price's Dempsy characters work in New York or go see girlfriends there, but such contacts fail to bring the metropolis any closer to them; crossing into the city transforms them into nervous exiles half an hour from home. In Clockers, Strike's straight-arrow older brother, Victor, accepts a job as a security guard for a tiny boutique selling upscale Japanese goods on Columbus Avenue. While working there, he is harassed by some local teenagers, flush with drug cash and eager to show off by mocking him as a "security nigger" and threatening to kill him. That the episode is set in Manhattan simply underscores New York's irrelevance. Victor's world begins and ends close to home, and the humiliation he feels and his inward rage eventually find expression not on the Upper West Side but in Dempsy, by means of a murder committed not far from the housing project where he grew up.

The Dempsy books upend the expected relation between center and periphery, situating Manhattan as a distant—though never quite forgotten—satellite of the world, whose dramas, pulsing with a wrenching vitality, play themselves out in the wastes beyond the Hudson. But now, Price has taken a hiatus from Dempsy. With Lush Life, he has crafted a story around a wee-hours killing on New York's Lower East Side, one that bears a passing resemblance to the well-publicized murder, in 2005, of the actress and playwright Nicole duFresne, though in the novel the victim is male, a twenty-something hipster named Ike Marcus. (After leaving a bar, duFresne and some friends were robbed by two youths from the nearby projects, one of whom fired his gun when she reportedly asked him, "What are you going to do, shoot us?") One might wonder whether the change of setting signals not just a return to origins but a shift in Price's realism, a move away from its recent tight focus and preference for the margins toward something more panoramic in its social analysis, perhaps something in the grand tradition of Dreiser or (modernist experimentation aside) Dos Passos. This isn't the case. Price has retained the police-procedural foundation that grounded the Dempsy books and, with the exception of a few scenes in the affluent Riverdale section of the Bronx, restricts his purview to the multiethnic enclave nestled in the shadows of the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges. The teenager Tristan, a key figure in the novel, sticks so close to his stomping ground that he makes Price's Dempsy characters seem positively cosmopolitan by comparison: "He didn't like going north of Houston or west of Essex, and he hated delivering dope to the doctors and nurses up at Bellevue or NYU Special Joints, both so far uptown they might as well be in another country." Lush Life, one might say, follows Tristan's lead by being relentlessly local in emphasis.

Street memorial for Nicole duFresne, New York, 2005.

Price has often concerned himself with place as the keystone of character. Having grown up in the Parkside Houses in the Bronx, he has reflected on his own beginnings through the housing projects that pervade his fiction, starting with his loosely autobiographical debut book, The Wanderers (1974). Increasingly, though, he has considered not only the shaping influence of one's home turf but the ways in which people lay claim to particular locales, a process that is just as apt to foster dangerous misconceptions as to encourage intense attachment and identification. The drama—and, in its way, the subtle comedy—of his previous novel, Samaritan, revolve around the overeagerness of a successful television writer to reconnect with his childhood home in the projects, albeit from the insulating distance of a nearby gated apartment complex. In Samaritan, Price performs the tricky maneuver of having his protagonist act foolishly without making him seem a fool; he doesn't invert the cliché of the successful hard-knocks local boy, coming home to "give back to the community," but rather complicates the scenario, delving into the screenwriter's needy psyche and showing how the seductive power granted to the well-intentioned do-gooder can produce perilous blind spots.

In Lush Life, Price's preoccupation with place and home is brought to a setting whose range of significance extends well beyond the merely personal resonances of a longtime resident or returning native son. As everyone knows, the Lower East Side isn't, or isn't just, geography; it is also a signifier, a fantasy, an accoutrement of identity (and its debased cousin, hipness), and a repository of nostalgia. Price displays a superb feel for the neighborhood as a ghostly palimpsest, as when describing the remnants of past lives that haunt the dim cellar beneath a trendy restaurant ("For the ones who had once lived down here, all that remained of them [were] now the names and Yiddish phrases, some in Roman letters, some in Hebrew, carved into the blackened joists not even an arm's length overhead") or in having his detective Matty Clark, at once cagey and reflective, sense the "double layer of evicted ghosts—pauperish tenants, greenhorn parishioners"—lurking within a desanctified synagogue that's been transformed into a showplace carriage house. For Billy Marcus, the father of the murdered man, the neighborhood is as good as an ancestral home, prized as if it were some mythical Old Country: "We're from Eldridge," he tells Matty. "Houston and Eldridge . . . Ike's great-grandfather."

But the history Marcus invokes is one whose traces are belittled by serving as not much more than an aesthetically satisfying backdrop to the sophisticates' mecca that's sprouted up in the area. The neighborhood's poetry of decay and epochal transformation is curdled by an overbearing awareness of how distinctive—the developer's byword—this pocket of Manhattan is. What's more, the Jewish history enshrined on its streets is but one of many. Within the space of a few pages, two very different characters comment on the Lower East Side's "heyday": First, there's Eric Cash, the dissatisfied thirty-five-year-old restaurant manager whose middling talents as a writer and actor have landed his halfhearted career at an agonizing dead end; he wearily reflects on how "his only viable project right now was a screenplay, five thousand down, twenty more on completion, anything about the Lower East Side in its heyday, Aka Jewday, commissioned by a customer from Berkmann's, a former Alphabet City squatter turned real estate gorilla, who now wanted to be an auteur; everybody wanting to be an auteur." Soon, the speech patterns and vocabulary drastically shift, and we discover a different heyday, when the voluble project kid Little Dap Williams tells Tristan—as they are salvaging pages of Scripture from the wreck of a collapsed synagogue, no less—that "you din't live round here back in the heyday, so no way you'd know, but about ten, twelve years ago? . . . The Purples on Avenue C, Hernandez brothers on A and B, Delta Force in the Cahans, nigger name Maquetumba right in the Lemlichs. Half a them got snatched up by rico for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hardcores, so now it's like just the Old Heads out there sippin' forties and telling stories about yesteryear." What, then, is the heyday of the neighborhood? The turn-of-the-century crucible of Jewish-immigrant struggle and striving, or some carefully molded version of that history created with an eye to burnishing some wannabe auteur's reputation, or the never-to-be-recorded but legendary early-'90s gang strife? (And what of other secret mythologies, those of the "pre-land-rush old-timers, the Chinese, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Bangladeshi"?) Price sets competing worldviews beside one another with impressive economy, sometimes, as here, turning on a word or phrase. (Something analogous happens with the word upstate, which for some denotes an actual New York region, for others means anywhere peripheral to the glamour of Manhattan, and for cops is inevitably just a euphemism for the serving of prison time.)

Given the gulfs in outlook that separate the local residents, as well as the area's far-from-transparent politics and economics and the quotidian hostilities arising from its cluster of jockeying interests, the Lower East Side of Lush Life can seem less a neighborhood than a site of low-level civil conflicts, some latent or merely symbolic, others bubbling up into actual violence. Overworked Asian immigrants who take their pay home in cash are targeted by thieves who know their victims' habits; roving "Quality of Life" police squads engage in racial profiling that's barely distinguishable from harassment for its own sake, initiated mostly to assuage the boredom of patrol. The murder of Ike—young, overconfident in his abilities and prospects, and carrying himself with the requisite tattoos and air of bright-kid irony to seem "like a poster boy for the neighborhood"—occupies center stage as an especially garish instance of this climate of aggression. But what interests Price most about Ike is not his innocence per se, but rather the form such innocence takes, a markedly contemporary naïveté that leads him, in his final moments, to feel himself charmed, as if he were immune to anything as outlandish as harm, as if being held up at gunpoint were nothing more than an opportunity to step into the role of hero in his own vigilante movie: "Not tonight, my man," Ike tells his murderer, who responds to this would-be tagline by shooting him. Of course, the tagline is not denied him; it's splashed across the front page of the Post, a ready-made epitaph for the headline writers. Just as apt would have been his self-description the day before his killing: "I'm my own kid."

Thirty years earlier, Ike's murder would have seemed lamentable but routine, just one more incident in the endemic urban malaise. But in the supposedly new New York, what with homicide rates way down and a turbocharged real estate market pushing development into Manhattan's every nook and cranny, the crime is conspicuous enough (and the victim white and photogenic enough) to become a full-blown media event. It also invites, at least among those not adhering to conventional religious practice, the peculiar mourning rites of contemporary culture. In struggling to cope with the death of his son, Billy Marcus has memorized a "literature" of grief, eagerly repeating the "three steps to grace" as if they were bullet points in an interoffice memo ("One. Accept the fact that the murder can't be undone. . . . Two, find the higher meaning in it"). And the makeshift shrine that soon adorns the crime scene, as seen by Matty as representing "three of the worlds that made up the universe down here: Latino; Young, Gifted, and White; and Geezer/Crackpot/Hippie," comes across as a precisely rendered conglomeration of vague, anonymous sentiment, its parts running the gamut from inscrutable sincerity to wildly inappropriate fringe politics:

There were dozens of lit botanica candles, a scattering of coins on a velvet cloth, a reed cross laid flat on a large round stone, a CD player running Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" on an endless loop, a videocassette of Mel Gibson's The Passion still sealed in its box, a paperback of Black Elk Speaks, some kind of unidentifiable white pelt, a few petrified-looking joints, bags of assorted herbs, coils of still-smoldering incense that gave off competing scents, and a jar of olive oil. Taped to the brick directly above all this was the front-page headshot of a smiling Isaac Marcus from the first day's New York Post, the headline his now notorious last words: not tonight, my man (Matty had no idea who fed that to the papers), alongside of which someone had cryptically put up an old tabloid photo of Willie Bosket, the fifteen-year-old urban boogie boy of the 1970s who famously killed someone on the subway "just to see what it felt like," and next to that, a homemade handwritten rant, "Amerikkka's war on poverty is a war AGAINST the Poor," the rest of it illegible.

For a different sort of writer, this mélange of responses to the murder and the bizarre juxtapositions given expression in the shrine could readily be the stuff of satire. But Price is never so dismissive. Here he stops just short of distorting the memorial into something grotesque, ending the description by noting "a home-crafted tubular-steel mobile whose desultory clanging on this nearly windless night truly sounded like mourning." Satire tidies up the real, organizes its inherent lack of coherence, whereas Price is more intent on allowing for dissonance. The rawness of what's observed trumps the authority of summary judgment.

So it is that in detailing the response to Ike's death, depicting forms of observance that seem at once highly mannered and unnervingly casual, Price's realism is at its riskiest and most intriguingeven more so than when his vaunted observational powers bring to life drug-slinging corner boys or seen-it-all cops. Because as powerful and technically adept as these characterizations are, they are nonetheless familiar—Matty is the latest in a run of worn-down detectives approaching retirement in Price's novels and screenplays—and take their place in a venerable tradition of writing and filmmaking about urban squalor, crime, and police work. But Price is as skilled at recording the speech and psychology of our therapeutic era as he is at revealing the inner worlds of small-time hustlers and wisecracking policemen; when chronicling the sort of changeable, uncertain mores that have sprung up around death and other forms of trauma, he is tracking not so much the way we live now as the way we've just begun to feel ourselves living, the nascent habits of mind, emotion, and public expression that can seem too contemporary for us to be entirely comfortable with.

How else but with a shudder of recognition can one regard the memorial service given to commemorate Ike's brief life? It's an event staged by Steven Boulware, one of Ike's haplessly self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing friends (who was with him when he died but was too drunk to remember much), who twists his own words into studied rhetorical knots as master of ceremonies: "I'd like to introduce you to some of today's . . . I don't want to say eulogizers . . . some of today's . . . celebrants." What ensues amounts to a multimedia pep rally for Ike's life, with a slide show set to backing tracks like "You Are So Beautiful to Me," "He's a Rebel," and "International Playboy." When the speakers come up to pay their respects, it's not just that they ramble and speak in clichés—many people would—but that most of them feel so little real humility in the face of the killing and instead prattle on narcissistically, working their audience and taking great pleasure in their performances. (DuFresne's fiancé, who had been shot by the gun that would moments later be used to kill her, wore his bloodstained shirt to their assailant's trial, along with a wedding ring to symbolize what the Post called a "marriage that couldn't be.") One friend jokingly begins his speech as if he were at an AA meeting ("Hi, my name is Jeremy Spencer? And I'm an alcoholic"); a game ex-lover, a "dolled-up raven-haired girl onstage in high, fur-seamed Uggs and a low-cut dress the red-orange hue of Fiestaware," recites a "performance piece" detailing Ike's prowess in bed; and Steven himself, the final speaker, closes out the supposed tributes to Ike by cheering himself up about his own dismal prospects: "'I don't know if I'll get that part or not, but in the end it doesn't make all that much of a difference. Because, Ike?' addressing the ceiling.'I now know this. I am an artist. . . . I'm still here, Ike, and I am staying.'" Compared with such posturing, the most eloquent expression of mourning comes from Ike's teenage half sister, Nina, who finds herself stricken with terror and unable to take the stage.

The memorial service is a set piece, and even more so than the description of the shrine outside the crime scene, it veers close to satire. Certainly, we're not meant to regard Ike's friends favorably. But any moralizing on Price's part is held in check by the immense interest he takes simply in having the scene play out, in giving the occasion that fullness of treatment that succeeds only when all the details—the telling verbal tics, the throwaway cultural references, the ephemeral fashions—resound with impeccable credibility. There's a bedrock of such truth telling even in passages in which his principal aim isn't realism. Such exacting, unblinkered attentiveness to the actual, in our era of manufactured "reality," turns out to be rarer and more audacious than we might have expected. Price has remarked how he is "engaged by the moment, the veracity of any particular moment," and one of the pleasures of reading him is to be aware, on virtually every page, of the intensity, exuberance, and fierce intelligence that expend themselves in giving shape to such veracity, even as he allows himself the imaginative freedom that is the novelist's prerogative. With novels such as Clockers and now Lush Life, Price has staked his claim as one of the finest realists of this or any age.

James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.

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