Saturday, October 17, 2009

Book 17 – Lush Life

By Richard Price

I remember reading how Richard Price has a marvelously uncanny ear for street talk and police procedure. As a fan of The Wire, I also noted he was part of the show’s elite team of crime fiction writers and how reviewers often drew comparisons between his earlier work and The Wire even before he came on board. When I spotted Lush Life at my local thrift shop for $3, I was siked.

From the blurb, I already knew that the novel was about a shooting that occurred in the Lower East Side, where Price grew up. Other than what I already mentioned, I didn’t know anything more than that. It took me a while to get into it as the author sets up the characters and scene. I was also a little wary about the central character, Eric Cash, a restaurant bar manager, who at 35, is close to giving up on any hope of achieving whatever youthful aspirations he once had.

While out drinking with people whom he barely likes, they get robbed at gunpoint and one is shot dead. Emanating with self-loathing, Eric quickly transforms from key witness to suspect in the eyes of the two police detectives, who are otherwise capable, but end up making a fatal mistake. Once I was left trying to figure out what was going on, I was hooked, as the narrative scope swiftly and confidently expanded from the shooting incident to encompass a whole cross-section of people that intersect as the police investigation progresses.

As the author put it in a NY Times article: “An investigation will take you through a landscape.” The landscape being the Lower East Side, which Price depicts as a neighborhood of colliding populations. “This place is like Byzantium. It’s tomorrow, yesterday — anyplace but today.”

Although the intersecting kaleidoscopic narrative device has been done to death recently in overblown Hollywood dreck like Crash and Babel, it’s rarely ever put to accomplished and meaningful use. Reading Lush Life felt very much like experiencing the world of The Wire all over again, albeit with different characters and location, of course. You’ve got the police investigation hampered by politics, the law and the media; the sharp observation of class conflict and individual interactions; the wry humour. And Price’s portrayal of the middle-class white hipsters at the victim’s memorial was dead-on and merciless.

This is probably due to the fact that the new wave of "La Bohemer" gentrifiers are taking over a bygone neighbourhood. As one Salon reviewer notes: "Price seems so fond of streetwise impudence and cynicism that middle-class hypocrisy and cant become in some ways a less forgivable crime than murder". There is definitely a wary and cynical undercurrent there as you can feel how Price laments the loss of the old New York – just enough to make you feel a little sad, instead of merely rolling your eyes. I think knowing a little bit about the overall and recent history of New York helps in appreciating the novel a little more. For instance, I had to ask Olman what this Quality of Life business was about, as the author rarely explains away context to outsiders or tourists so readily. It'd be interesting to know Olman's thought about this book, since he had to jump in and read it while I was still trying to finish Post Captain!

Lush Life was a very straightforward read, but at over 400 pages, it was no quickie either! Still comes strongly recommended if you’re a fan of The Wire, interested in New York and/or you're simply looking for a well-written recent bestseller. I'd definitely seek out his other fiction work, like Clockers for one.

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