Lush Life by Richard Price

Connie Ogle
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The book asks the hard question: Will we ever end the violent cycle of poverty and crime? The answer: Not tonight, my man.

Lush Life

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 9780374299255
Author: Richard Price
Price: $26.00
Length: 464
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-03

In a fourth-season episode of HBO's brilliant series The Wire, Omar -- a drug dealer who robs other drug dealers -- is trying to explain the morality behind what he does, why stumbling upon a bag of merchandise on the street is less desirable than ripping it out of an enemy's hands at gunpoint. "It ain't what you taking; it's who you taking it from," he says. "You feel me?"

This concise, marvelous lesson in street dynamics and power is the sort of insightful insider spark that drives The Wire and the latest novel by Richard Price, who wrote that particular episode. Price is one of several crime novelists who contribute to the series -- others are George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane -- which explores the gritty reality of urban life in Baltimore in a comprehensive way that has prompted more than one critic to reach for the word "Dickensian."

Price has extended his savvy understanding of this world -- particularly the segment inhabited by cops, victims and predators -- to the housing projects of New Jersey in such novels as Clockers, Samaritan and Freedomland, and now, in Lush Life, to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where gentrification clashes uncomfortably with poverty, and race means more than most people care to admit.

A compelling urban drama about the repercussions of a murder, Lush Life expands its focus from the victim and the cop working the case to the victim's family, a witness, the killer, to encompass a whole spectrum of experience. The narrative never loses sight of the shifting fortunes of the neighborhood, ripe with "traces of the nineteenth century Yiddish boomtown everywhere; in the claustrophobic gauge of the canyonlike streets with their hanging garden of ancient fire escapes, in the eroded stone satyr heads leering down between pitted window frames above the Erotic Boutique, in the faded Hebrew lettering above the old socialist cafeteria turned Asian massage parlor turned kiddie-club hot spot. ... "

The trouble starts, as it often does, early one morning after the clubbers pour from the trendy bars, an hour or two before daylight. Three intoxicated men are robbed. It matters that they are white. One passes out. Good-looking Ike Marcus -- bartender, aspiring actor, only son -- is dead. The third, Eric Cash, says they were robbed by two black, possibly Hispanic, men who got spooked when Ike, instead of handing over his wallet, stepped toward the gunman saying, "Not tonight, my man."

The story sounds plausible enough to Detective Matty Clark -- divorced, workaholic, an absent father with two defiantly criminal sons -- at least until he hears a different version, at which point Lush Life is off and running at a breathless but never careless pace. The book, which doesn't lag for even a sentence, is a dialogue-driven, thoroughly riveting examination of how an investigation unfolds and the emotional toll it takes on everyone involved.

Price writes with the clear, straightforward prose of a reporter, though he's less concerned with procedural plodding than with exploring the bureaucratic minefield of policework: the favors owed, the mistakes made, the impossibility of accomplishing even the simplest tasks when every boss is concerned with protecting his turf. Contrary to popular CSI-gleaned wisdom, cops can't always run every forensic test they need, especially with budgets stretched tight.

And so Matty finds himself doggedly doing the repetitive police work that doesn't make for exciting chase scenes, "poring over Manhattan robbery-pattern reports from the last six months, the monthly All Sheets of unsolved crimes, keeping it close to home though, the Eighth, the Fifth and the Ninth, because a deer never travels more than a mile from where it was born and always walks in the path of its ancestors."

What Price accomplishes here is akin to Pelecanos' best work: neither writer offers the easy solutions and case-closed satisfaction found in many suspense novels. Like Pelecanos' recent The Night Gardener, Lush Life allows an uneasy truth to linger: Even if justice exists, which is debatable, it is elusive. The book asks the hard question: Will we ever end the violent cycle of poverty and crime? The answer: Not tonight, my man.






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