Richard Price

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"Lush Life"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 24, 2008)

"You are a self-centered, self-pitying, cowardly, envious, resentful, failed-ass career waiter.  That's your everyday jacket.  Now, add to that a gun and a gutful of vodka? I don't believe that shooting last night was an accident.  I think you were a walking time bomb and last night you finally went off."

When Eric Cash is interrogated as a suspect in the murder of Ike Marcus, he is dumbfounded.  He and Ike Marcus, the new bartender at Café Berkmann, where Eric is manager, had been trying to walk Ike's extremely drunk friend, Steve Boulware, home from an all-nighter when they were confronted by two "dark" males, intent upon robbery.  Eric immediately "gives it up," dropping Steve on the sidewalk, but Ike quietly approaches the robbers, saying "Not tonight, my man."  Within seconds, he is dead, shot in the chest.  Accounts of the robbery and murder differ among the witnesses, and the police, led by Matty Clark, a long-time Irish cop, decide that "Two eyewits trumps physical evidence."  They take Eric, a victim, into custody on suspicion, interrogating him for hours and turning him into a permanent enemy in the investigation.

New York's Lower East Side, where the action takes place, is changing.  Bohemian students wanting to be poets and writers, like Eric and Ike, have moved in.  Some of the long-time immigrant populations have moved out, and the neighborhood is racially and culturally mixed.  Almost anything seems to go, socially, and drugs are an active part of the scene.  Looming over the area are the Lemlichs, a series of project houses in which the residents do whatever they can to survive, often ganging up against a hostile outside world and resorting to drug sales for income and escape.  The unsuccessful poet/writers lead lives almost as filled with failed dreams as the young thugs in the projects, however, and Eric, Ike, and Steve have, by chance, found themselves at an intersection in which every person connected to them or their assailants must suddenly deal with the rippling effects of Ike's murder and their own sense of failure.

Det. Matty Clark, running the investigation, is stymied by the lack of evidence, the difficulty in identifying and locating witnesses, the reluctance of the neighborhood to talk, and the desire of his own department to close the case as soon as possible—without any interference from curious members of the press.  Matty, however, has "cops' eyes, the compulsion to imagine an overlay of the dead wherever he [goes]," and he can not let go of the case.  Ike's father, Billy Marcus, numbed by the news of his son's murder, is reliving every minute of his life with Ike, alternately blaming himself, the police, and Ike's companions for Ike's death.  Literally out of his mind with grief, he wants to help but also wants revenge, and his haunting of police headquarters and constant confrontations with police make him a hazard to himself and them.  Eric Cash, wanting to escape the horrors of the murder, hopes to move elsewhere, the fruitlessness of his life as a writer finally recognized.  His illegal activities at the Café Berkmann, he hopes, will net him enough money to leave New York. 

Well known for his ability to tell a story in the dialogue of street slang, author Richard Price here creates a panorama of life in the city so vivid that it feels like a movie unwinding behind one's eyes—and not a pleasant movie.  The dialogue and the images it inspires are so realistic, so gritty, and often so full of heartache, that characters grow before our eyes, and their interactions with each other become the clashes and miseries we experience in nightmares.  As Price explores the points of view of Eric Cash, Det. Matty Clark, Billy Marcus (Ike's father), Minette Davidson (Billy Marcus's wife), Tristan (a "slow" teenager from the projects), and many others, the intersections of their lives—and the randomness of their connections—show the power of the city itself to alter dreams and the future.  As much about the city as about the characters, the ironically entitled Lush Life creates a powerful composite of the competing social forces in one neighborhood.

As Price expands this unusual police procedural to show all the parallels and interconnections among his characters, he sometimes veers off into subplots which delay the story without adding significant new information to the portrait of the Lower East Side and the main characters.  Matty Clark's problems with his sons, arrested in an upstate town, show how police officers can influence each other in their actions, for example, but that is also shown in other parts of this book.  His brief flirtation with Billy Marcus's distraught wife shows their mutual neediness, but that is clear from their individual behavior and does not need elaboration.  The long section in which Steve Boulware, the drunk friend who was unconscious during Ike's murder, conducts Ike's memorial service could have been shortened significantly, while still retaining thematic integrity. 

Lush Life is a big novel in all ways, and it is a significant addition to Price's bibliography as one of the great writers of contemporary urban realism.  His vision is huge, and his ability to show the widening circles by which one event can draw in large numbers of unsuspecting characters is successful.  Though the novel may not need as much detail or as many characters and subplots as it contains, Lush Life is a remarkable achievement despite its excesses, a novel sure to create new fans for Price.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 222 reviews


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About the Author:

Richard PriceRichard Price was born in 1949 in the Bronx, New York and grew up in a housing project in the northeast Bronx.

He is a graduate of Bronx High School of Science and has a B.A. from Cornell University and an MFA from Columbia. He also did graduate work at Stanford.

He is a novelist and a screenwriter. He was nominated for an Oscar for the movie The Color of Money. He also wrote Sea of Love, Mad Dog and Glory, Ransom and Shaft. He also writes for the HBO series The Wire.

He also contributes articles to The New York Times, Esquire, The New Yorker, the Village Voice, Rolling Stone and others.

He has taught writing at Columbia, Yale and New York University.

Price lives in New York City with his wife, the painter Judith Hudson, and his daughters.

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