Most writers hear voices: characters venting, wheedling, struggling to get out of their creators' heads. Richard Price seems to be channeling an entire city.
In Lush Life, the author of Clockers and Freedomland unleashes a wildly verbal agglomeration of cops and perps, tough kids from the projects and strivers fresh from Middle America, along with illegals riding the newest wave of immigrants into the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The characters spring onto the page, cantankerous and full of life, and they talk. And they talk: yuppie to yuppie in downtown upscale bars, project kids on the prowl, cops from their positions on the NYPD food chain.
Swift, sharp, profane and funny, the dialogue is pitch perfect. You don't just read a Richard Price novel. You hear it.
In the opening pages, an undercover police unit called the Quality of Life Task Force pulls over a driver at the Manhattan end of the Williamsburg Bridge:
"What's with the midnight shades?" Daley asks from the shotgun seat, leaning forward past Lugo to make eye contact.
"I got photosensitivity," the guy answers, tapping his frames.
The window glides back up and he shoots east on Houston.
"Did he call us officers?"
"It's that stupid flattop of yours."
"'t's that f----n' tractor hat of yours."
"I gots photosensitivity."
When the murder of Ike Marcus comes down, the Quality of Life squad will be first on the scene in their ersatz taxi.
A screenwriter (The Color of Money, Sea of Love) who wrote for HBO's tough, mesmerizing cop series The Wire, Price knows what to put in — and what to leave out. Although this dense, compelling novel comes in close to 500 pages, Lush Life plays like a movie.
It begins with a murder, but the book isn't really about the crime. It's about the complex network of grief, guilt and apparent blame that creates a town where everybody's unhappy and nobody's really at fault. Bad things happen almost accidentally.
Handsome, cocky Ike Marcus is hired at the bar where actor-writer-whatever Eric Cash is working, but only until he gets his big break. It's been years. Twenty-something Ike's star is on the rise, and Eric, in his terms, is over the hill and beginning the long slide toward his forties. Yes, he's bitter.
One night, for reasons he's not sure of, Eric ends up prowling the neighborhood with Ike and a very drunk friend. Built on the bones of a 19th century Jewish community, it is a landscape in transition. The trio blunders into a botched 4 a.m. mugging.
Ike is shot. Later his girlfriend says, "It was like God snapped his fingers."
Two witnesses put the gun in Eric's hand. The police believe, and here's the beauty part. Although Lush Life introduces the actual shooter and hands him the gun hours before the event, the police are so convinced that over the course of a long, intense interrogation, Eric begins to doubt himself — and the reader does too.
The cop in charge is burly Matty Clark. He and his partner, Yolonda Bello, work Eric hard. Matty has all night. He doesn't want to go home. His hulking, hostile sons are camping in his living room.
Handling Ike's bereaved father, Matty "would have done anything to have Yolonda in his place right now. At least cosmetically, though, he was probably the better choice. Most families found more reassurance in the big, lantern-jawed Irishman, all ass-kick and unrelentingness, than the Bambi-eyed Latina; no matter that for all her touchy-feely vibes Yolonda was a better hunter."
Ike's bumbling, emotional father, Billy Marcus, is the novel's wild card, too wrecked by grief to pull himself together and go home to his second wife. Instead he shows up in inconvenient places, hounding Matty to solve the crime, get justice, tell him that this is a mistake, Ike isn't really dead.
The fat drunk who was too boiled to identify the perp or clear Eric the night of the murder organizes an extravagant memorial service for Ike in a revamped relic of the long-gone Jewish community:
The Langenshield had started life as an immigrant dance hall, notorious as the site of a 1910 shoot-out between Jewish and Italian labor racketeers. . . . The new owners had left the interior artfully raw: exposed beams, gap-toothed chandeliers, balding velveteen curtains, defunct gaslight armatures protruding from the walls, the walls themselves stripped and peeled here and there to reveal the building's various incarnations, all of it lit from beneath to evoke the atmosphere of a massive archaeological discovery.
A whole world comes to life in this novel, as real as the flawed, well-meaning and all-too-human characters who move through it. Price isn't just good at what he does. He's brilliant.
Kit Reed's new novel, "Enclave," will be published early next year.