Sympathists

“You Live Here?”/”Not Right Here.” Richard Price’s “Lush Life.”

In Genre Fiction on February 8, 2009 at 9:10 pm

lushlife-bookcoverM. Standast, Kyoto

One measure of how much a book moves or captivates me these days is how long it takes me to finish it. This didn’t use to be the case. In high school I could read a book in a single night, starting from 7:30 or 8 PM and finishing at 2 or 2:30 AM. My senior year of high school I read between 200-250 books of every genre, level of difficulty, and length. The easier ones, those by P.G. Wodehouse, John Dixon Carr, Agatha Christie, could be polished off in an evening. Sturdier efforts, from Julian Symons, Anthony Powell, Kurt Vonnegut, took two or three days, while Joseph Heller and Ayn Rand would eat up a week or so. That was then. These days, everything takes longer. Looking at my reading list for this year, David Mendell’s Obama biography was put away in an amazing 5 days; Ballard’s Conversations took 12. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits took a month, while Richard Todd’s excellent study of authenticity in the modern world took 3. Five books in six weeks–43 books a year, a little meager. Fatherhood, full-time work, and a certain waning of, not of curiosity per se, but of that burning intensity of adolescence that allows for literary one-night-stands, intensity that is simply no longer accessible, all these have taken their toll.

Richard Price’s 2008 Lush Life consumed 14 days, the last 400 pages of the 450+ page novel coming in the last five. In this day and age, that’s full tilt, flat out absorption. Price, the author of Clockers (basis for a solid Spike Lee film from 1995) and The Wanderers (basis for the 1979 Philip Kaufman film–is there an odder director than Philip Kaufman?) has established himself as a kind of elder statesman of urban crime writing; when the epic Baltimore-based The Wire decided to go for name brand talent in its later seasons it was George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and Price that were brought aboard. Lush Life got mixed reviews, mostly positive but not outstanding, and I only picked up the book after hearing Price on NPR talking about the victim of the piece, Ike Marcus, who brings about his own demise by telling a would be mugger pointing a gun at him “Not tonight my man.” Despite the reviews, something about the phrase stuck with me, and Lush Life has been on the top of my “to read” list for months.

The novel is set on New York’s Lower East Side, and Price gets a lot of mileage out of the intersection of longtime Jewish residents, African American kids on the fringes of school and the drug world, Chinese illegals who sublet already sublet “planks” in “boat buildings”–apartments overflowing with immigrants– and white yuppies with big dreams (performance artist, writer, actor) who inevitably find themselves at 35 still waitressing or tending bar. The main characters are Eric Cash a self-loathing bartender in his mid to late thirties, Detective Matty Clark, older than Cash with two dope-dealing sons upstate who he hardly knows, and Billy Marcus, father of the victim, who finds himself unable to cope with developments and spends most of the book wandering around in an alcoholic, grief-stricken haze. The outlines of the story are simple; Cash, Ike and another friend get mugged late at night after an ill-advised drinking session, Ike, lost in a reverie of his own invincibility, tells one of the muggers, a 17 year old kid named Tristan who lives with his “ex-stepfather” (a nice twist) “Not tonight, my man,” Cash runs off, is arrested and then let go by Clark and his partner, a Latino woman called Yolanda, Cash begins to disintegrate, Tristan is finally caught but only after being fully humanized by Price and identified with by Yolanda, Clark’s teenage son gets busted with his older brother (an upstate policeman) for moving weed and is ordered to go live with Clark in New York, and Cash takes a job in Atlantic City at a theme restaurant ersatz mock-up of the real New York.

But the draw here is not the intricacy or originality of the plot. It lies, rather, with the precision with which Price sketches even the most trivial of characters and scenes. Salon’s Charles Taylor in one of the back cover blurbs (what a lovely word) proposes that “Perhaps we are no longer used to novelists who are superb reporters…{Price’s} characters come alive in a few paragraphs and remain living presences after they depart” and this is just about right. In fact, Price has a way of bringing home to the reader the full existential situation and range of choices even of characters whom we never actually meet. Here is a Chinese-American detective explaining why another man is sleeping on the plank of one Paul Ng, whom the police want to speak to in conjunction with a mugging he was the victim of but whom we never meet:

Fenton came back out into the hallway and signaled for them to head on out.
“That wasn’t Paul Ng?” Matty asked, leading the way down the stairs.
“That was his tenant.”
“Whose tenant?”
“Paul Ng’s.”
“Tenant of what?”
“The plank.”
The what?”
Fenton stopped on the second-floor landing.
“Ng rents that plank for a hundred and fifty a month from the guy in the kitchen, who leased the whole apartment, but three days a week they got Ng working in a restaurant up in New Paltz, so he sublets his plank to that guy there now for seventy-five bucks.”
“Jesus.”
“Hey, between the seventy-grand he’s probably working off to the snakehead that got him over here and sending a little something back to his family on the mainland? He’s kicking back about eighty percent of whatever shit salary they’re paying him, all of which is to say you sublet the fucking plank” (202).

In an earlier post, I reviewed Jonathan Dee’s attack on so-called “shock fiction”in which he argues that writers of shock fiction such as Neil LaBute and Dennis Cooper “{duck} what a more sophisticated writer might consider his primary artistic responsibility; namely, a credible motivation for his imaginary characters to say and do the things they say and do.”  One of the things that makes Price good is precisely his ability to provide credible motivations for his characters, even, as in this case, characters who we ever actually encounter.  “All of which is to say you sublet the fucking plank”–a world encapsulated in 11 words.  How is the effect achieved? mostly, as ever, through attention to detail.  Price has two great abilities which stand him in good stead as a novelist; i) an ear for how people speak; ii) and a sense of how organization and bureaucracies operate.

i) The police are canvassing the area of the shooting:

“Excuse me,” the gaunt Nigh Watch detective addressed the disheveled man perched on the top step {…}: “How you doing?”
“Good.”  the guy looked like human soot.
“You live here?”
“Not right here” (147).

Like Paul Ng, the bum here is of absolutely no importance to the story and is not seen again.  Nonetheless, the line is priceless, and Price doesn’t even italicize the “right” in “right here.”  A lesser author would not have been able to resist, and the line still would have been good, but Price, by just dropping this in, nails the character in three simple words.

-Clark, Yolanda and Detective John Mullins are interviewing one Alvin Anderson, on parole and 15 minutes past his curfew:

“Working?” Mullins asked.
“Looking.” {…}
“Transit Authority’s hiring porters right now,” Yolanda said.  “Your record doesn’t weigh against you there.”
“Yeah?” Alvin tried to sound helped.  “OK, OK.”

The police go on to tell Alvin about the significant reward for information leading to a conviction of the Ike Marcus murder:

“Just so you know,” Yolanda said, “there’s a twenty two-thousand-dollar reward up.”
“Twenty-two?”  Then, “Y’all got the extra ten thousand from the White Victims’ Fund?”
“It’s called the Mayor’s Fund,” Matty said, trying not to smile.
“Yeah, OK.”
“The point is,” Mullins said,” a guy like yourself could be in a good position to hear something, make a little kale for himself.”
“OK,” Anderson said.  It’s in confidence, right?”
“Always.”
“OK, then.”  Slapping his knees and half-rising, as if it were up to him when they left.  I’ll keep an ear out.”
“Good,” Yolanda said, standing up.  “And don’t forget what I said about the Transit Authority.”
“The Transit Authority?” Alvin blinked (258-260).

End of three page scene.  Two things of note here–first, writing is a professional discipline.  The ability to structure and time a scene that comes so perfectly full circle like this doesn’t come from nowhere, nor is it achievable by just anyone.  Concise writing is a skill; it is also a job.  Second, in a world of loose adjectives and adverbs, Alvin trying to sound helped is a wonderfully apt description that tells the reader more than any one adverb could.  Once again, we never meet Alvin again. It’s just work; all that matters is work.

ii) Clark wants a paraffin test on Eric Cash to see if he has fired a gun recently, and has woken up a captain to ask for it:

“All right, look.”  Mangini coughed, sniffed.  “You want to do me a favor?  Call the DI for this, clear it with him.”
“Berkowitz?” Matty pinching his brows.  “What time’s he get in?”
“Eight, about.”
With bosses, eight could mean eight, could mean nine, could mean ten; ten o’clock, six hours after the shooting” (61).

Good, nicely constructed, but leads too quickly to the nod of recognition and in so doing plays into a stereotype.  Better is the scene towards the end of the book where Cash, feeling guilty about Ike, about his failure as an artist, about everything, tells his boss, Harry Steele, that he has been stealing from the tip pool:

“With his eyes beading wetly at the corners, Eric took the plunge.
“I’m a thief.”
“You’re a thief.” {…}
“I shave points off the tip pool, once or twice a week, comes to about ten thousand a year going back five years.  Maybe a little more.  I fuck everybody.  Waiters, the bar, busboys, runners.  And you.  Ten thousand about.  Every year.”
“You’re serious,” Steele said.
Eric didn’t respond.
“Ten.”
“Yes.”
“I actually figured you for about twenty {…} Everybody steals from me.  They just don’t piss me off by telling me about it {…} You know why you’re telling me?  Because you feel bad about yourself, about Ike Marcus, and you want somebody to punish you or forgive you or who the hell knows.”  Steele shook his head in marvel.  “Ten thousand.  My kid’s babysitter probably steals more.  My kids steal more.  Jesus, do you have any idea what I take out of there?” (431-432).

Cash, after all, has been working for Steele for years, and Steele can depend on him.  When Cash talks about paying him the money back, Steele responds: “Not me.  You’re talking the tip pool.  You have to track down all those busboys over the years, all those three-weeks-and-see-ya waitresses from God knows where” (432). At the end of the conversation Steele asks Eric to take the job in Atlantic City: “I need someone I can trust.”  “Someone who keeps it at ten” (434).  What I like about this scene is that is provides a counterpoint to the idea of a boss as a soulless cooperate bean counter–even in the 21st century some managers and organizations realize that they benefit from loyalty and consistency, and are willing to overlook a little shaving, and a lot of character flaws, for ‘made men.’  For an economy in the grips of seemingly unending layoffs this is an uplifting message indeed.

We are up against our 2000 word limit, and have only gone over a handful of stand out scenes in a book full of insight, wit, and humanity.  Price is one of the truest American writers working today, and Lush Life comes highly recommended.

Image Credit from: http://www.firstshowing.net/img/lushlife-bookcover.jpg

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