I discovered Richard Price’s 2009 novel Lush Life on Lev Grossman’s list of the ten best novels of the 2000s, where it was one of only two novels I hadn’t read (the other is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). Price’s novel was, and still is, just $6 new on amazon, and after picking it up I found out Price wrote the story and/or teleplay for five episodes of The Wire, which would have been enough to sell me on the book in the first place. (He even appeared as the leader of the prison book group where D’Angelo Barksdale gives his thoughts on The Great Gatsby, one of the best episodes in the entire series.) Lush Life does have a lot in common with that TV series, in its realistic depictions of the police and the criminal underclass, in outstanding dialogue that’s almost a little too sharp to be real, and in the deft weaving of multiple storylines revolving around a large ensemble of characters. It’s the best novel I’ve read this year.
Lush Life begins, after a brief prologue, with a murder, a mugging gone wrong in the small hours on a street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where three drunk white men are accosted by two teenagers in an encounter that leaves one of the men dead, another passed-out drunk on the sidewalk, and the third unable to tell a straight enough story for the police. From that starting point, Price branches the story further and further out, tracking the two surviving victims, the two assailants, the murder victim’s father and stepmother, and the various detectives investigating the case (and the higher-ups who either want the case closed quickly or forgotten entirely).
By setting the book in the broad tableau of Manhattan urban life, Price can touch on a vast range of themes without ever making one central or lapsing into preachy or pedantic prose. Race sits at the heart of the novel because the victims were white while the assailants weren’t, and because the white-dominated media loves a privileged white victim of urban crime. Yet Price avoids most explicit discussions of race or racism, allowing the story to unfold through dialogue and changes of perspective that also show scenes of the economically disadvantaged project kids, two of whom are responsible for the crime, most of whom are shown without much hope of upward mobility outside of theft or the drug trade. The media are largely shown as leeches. The higher-ups at 1 Police Plaza are more interested in results that keep them employed than, in this case, closing a difficult-to-solve case. Even the detectives who caught the body here – led by Matty Clark, a McNulty-esque character with less of a drinking problem – are far from saints, motivated to close the case and move on to the next one so no one breathes down their necks, even if they don’t get the right perp, while Clark becomes entangled with the victim’s family with unintended consequences.
The most remarkable aspect of the novel is just how much Price manages to pack into a book of about 450 pages, between the richly developed characters and the myriad plot threads that spread from the initial murder and in many cases come back together at the novel’s close. I finished Lush Life feeling like I’d just watched a six-episode season of a TV drama, something as intelligent as The Wire yet surprisingly fresh and compact. The dialogue sparkles and the characters never seem to sit too far to either side of the wide expanse of grey between the two stock extremes. It’s also darkly funny in places, sometimes with gallows humor, sometimes with the stupidity of the kids getting caught with cars full of marijuana smoke or the venality of the cops, lawyers, reporters, and business owners whose lives are indirectly affected by the murder. It’s not groundbreaking literature, but it is highly intelligent fiction that never talks down to its reader and possesses the narrative greed of a good detective story even though the reader knows who committed the crime and is less concerned with their capture than with the evolution of the story in between those two points.
Next up: Don DeLillo’s very strange novel White Noise, part of the TIME and Radcliffe 100 lists.