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‘The Whites’ Gives Slumming a Good Name

Reported reality gives Price’s novel, published under his new crime-genre pen name Harry Brandt, a sharp tang that resonates with the best of his work.

The Whites

Publisher: Henry Holt
Length: 352 pages
Author: Richard Price
Price: $28.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-02

Fitting his moniker, Billy Graves is a cop working the night shift. Exhaustion is his permanent state, eyes falling out of his head from the damage being done to his circadian rhythms. All the caffeine in the world, those long-after-midnight energy-drink bodega injections, can’t keep his thought processes straight. As a result, he’s a little slow on the uptake when things start getting squirrelly. But, then, maybe he always was on the slower side.

Richard Price’s latest novel might be the first one released under his transparent nom de plume Harry Brandt, but it can’t help but feel like him through and through. Graves is a classic Price protagonist. A New York native, deeply wired into his home’s dense circuitry of favors and gamesmanship tribal loyalties and generations-deep resentments, Graves is flawed and hanging on like the city itself.

At The Whites beginning, Graves is working a murder that kicks him back to an uglier past. He’s just come off a late-night shooting where Graves’ jangled nerves and sleep-deprivation heighten the black humor:

One forty-five a.m…. the sound of tires rolling over a side street full of shattered light bulbs was like the sound of Jiffy Pop achieving climax, the aftermath of a set test between the Skrilla Hill Killaz from the Coolidge Houses and the Stack Money Goons from the Madisons, four kids sent to St. Luke’s for stitches, one with a glass shard protruding from his cornea like a miniature sail. Where they got all the light bulbs was anyone’s guess.

Not long after that, Graves is at Penn Station, where a blast from his past has bled out from a stab wound on the southbound subway platform. Jeffrey Bannion was one of what Graves calls to himself the Whites (as in, white whales): one of the ones that got away. Years earlier, Bannion was seen as good for a never-closed child murder on City Island. Now he was dead, and Graves isn’t going to lose what little sleep can get over it. He’s more concerned with keeping his crime scene from being tramped over by drunken commuters and convincing the transit cops to block the trains until at least rush hour starts.

The latter desire is one of the many nods to the real-life frustrations of cop-life that Price threads through his narrative. Although Price has put his name on a number of routine crime screenplays (Money Train, for instance), his novels have always grown out of a journalistic sensibility that leaves them thick with accreted detail. That kind of detail is heavy in The Whites, which doesn’t rush into its plot but takes on a surprising kind of momentum when it does.

It doesn’t take Graves long to figure out that Bannion isn’t the only one of the Whites who has come to an unfortunate end. His problem then becomes how to figure out who’s doing it when the most likely culprits are his closest friends on the force. Adding some extra spin to the curveball that he’s just been thrown is the fact that those friends closed the wagons around him in protection when he was investigated for a bad shooting.

That happened during Graves’ wilder times, the city’s last big spasm of lawlessness in the '90d. They called themselves the Wild Geese, “a tight crew given a ticket to ride in one of the worst precincts of the East Bronx.” As happens in such times, they ran rogue to a degree, Price conferring neither villain or savior status on Graves’ recollections of the self-determined vigilante ethos they used protecting the locals they thought of as “family”:

…they generally tolerated whores who were reasonably discreet and, as an added bonus, funny. Nonviolent junkies were left on the street and used as informants … if one of the family got hurt by a bad player -- a street girl having her eye blackened or finger broken by her Slapaho Mac Daddy, a Wild Geeser catching a paintball or pellet-gun round in the back, a casino operator or bodega owner taken off by the local mokes -- then they would descend as one, and the beatdowns and banishments would commence … the Wild Geese, in the eyes of the people they protected and occasionally avenged, walked the streets like gods.

Price can get swept away with this kind of dirty poetry, but it never palls. In part, that’s because he is only ever nodding to genre. Only rarely does The Whites feel held hostage to the demands of deepening the mystery or introducing a convenient obstacle. It helps that Graves has to keep doing his job even as he surreptitiously works the Whites cases. Those graveyard shifts don’t stop just because he’s got a hunch. This allows Price to keep throwing in one would-you-believe-it late-night circus after another: the report of two girls swordfighting in the street turns out to be NYU students playing Xena; the two guys who got the simultaneous idea to rob the other and each took a bullet; the cashier shot dead whose corpse somehow remained standing, allowing patrolmen plenty of chances for giggling selfies.

Perhaps because he doesn’t feel the pressure of his other novels’ larger canvases, working within the genre idiom allows Price to be both looser and hard-nosed with his plotting than usual. The novel churns on into progressively knottier territory. Graves’ home life grows progressively more tense as his father develops dementia, his wife’s own long-buried secrets start coming to the fore, and a stalker targets them all. The result is a page-turner that gets under your skin. In one scene, Graves races through his house in a panic that somebody has been hurt: “the animal priority of who he loved most coming in the order of rooms entered.” The moment is sharply effective, like a dash of smelling salts.

In the New Jersey novels like Freedomland, and his more recent Lower East Side-set Lush Life, Price had a tendency for spiraling overreach. The textures are always spot-on, the characters’ acid-etched pathos practically Dickensian. But there is usually a sense near the end of the story overflowing its boundaries, as though Price were just setting up characters and situations that would continue long after the books’ final pages.

With The Whites, though, Price has taken a breather from reinventing the great American realist novel. He uses that break to bring together the propulsive sensibility of his screenplay work and his novels’ deeply rooted knowledge of place and people.

It’s a hell of a thing.


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