Star-Spangled Tragedy

<i> Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review</i>

On Oct. 25, 1994, a white woman named Susan Smith walked into the 6 o’clock zeitgeist of the nation. That day, she told the Union, S.C., police force that an African American male forced her out of her car at gunpoint and drove off with her two young children in the back seat. Within hours, news hounds from around the country stuck their telephoto noses into the story, capturing every tearful plea from Smith and her former husband, David. An entire nation prayed for the arrest of the black criminal and the safe release of the children.

Ten days later, the criminal gave herself up. Susan Smith confessed that she had strapped 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex into her Mazda Protege and let it roll into the muddy waters of John D. Long Lake. There was no carjacking. There was no African American male.

Real life bombards the skull of the fiction writer from many directions. Personal memory, casual observation, the thump of the morning newspaper on the doorstep. It is the rare novelist who doesn’t just embellish the evening news but reimagines it in the context of his own America, building the merely pathetic into an American tragedy.

Brenda Martin is the Susan Smith of Richard Price’s latest triumph. On a hot night at the end of June, Brenda staggers, thin, white, stunned and bruised, into the emergency room of the Dempsy Medical Center. Patient questioning tweezes out the substance of her tale. Earlier that evening, trying to find a shortcut through the Armstrong Housing Projects, Brenda stopped her car and asked directions from a tall African American male. A few seconds later, she found herself on the ground, her car gone. And gone with the car, asleep in the back seat, was her 4-year-old son, Cody.


So far so parallel. Yet woe to the reader who confuses inspiration with imitation. Brenda Martin is no Susan Smith, and Dempsy, N.J., is far from Union, S.C. The Dempsy of “Freedomland” is familiar territory to those readers who remember the high-rise projects of Price’s “Clockers” (or Spike Lee’s screen adaptation), a city of Kansas Fried Chicken, storefront churches, smoke shops, abandoned businesses and a Little League field “resting atop a fifty-year-old chromium dump.”

Although Brenda tutors young black kids in an after-school study program in the Armstrong projects, she lives across an uneasy border in Gannon, Dempsy’s white neighbor, where her brother is a respected member of the police force. Within minutes of her report, Gannon police ring Armstrong with an unbreakable cordon--no one in, no one out. After all, a child’s life is at stake: a white child’s.

Enter Lorenzo “Big Daddy” Council, “six foot three, 240 pounds--with a royal gut, a pendulous and chronically split lower lip, and thick glasses,” a black man, a native of the projects, with a bad case of asthma and a detective’s badge. Lorenzo’s “social ability to bat from either side of the plate,” to make a hit with cops and civilians, white and black alike, makes him the ideal confessor for Brenda. But it also places him on the razor-wire atop a certain chain-link fence between the ugly requirements of law and the inconvenient duties of justice. As the search for Cody continues, Lorenzo the detective finds himself up against the project preachers and local leaders who are defending the civil rights of the citizens of Armstrong.

“This is where I am, this is what I do,” Lorenzo says. “Stand at the door, straddle the fence . . . Revolution, rhetoric, confrontation, demonstration, agitation, manifesto, mandate--in his heart, Lorenzo cared for none of it, his credo, now and always. To Hover and Protect.” One character calls Brenda their Helen of Troy, a marginal woman who just happened to start a race war. If so, then Lorenzo is the weary Odysseus, unable to tell, after 400 years of Trojan War, which side he is on, which way is home. But as June turns to July and the black population boils under the white heat of the investigation, Lorenzo, perhaps more like Brutus before him, is forced to confront the issue of honor and get off the fence.


And then there are the unelected tribunes of the people: the news media who descend on Dempsy like the Furies. Chief among them is Jesse Haus, a white female reporter for the Dempsy Register, a “small, overdenimed, overmascaraed, fine-boned young woman,” Lorenzo thinks, “reminding him, as she always did, of a race car stuck in traffic--crossed legs pumping, untended notepad bobbing in her lap, a nervous flicker in the eye, as if some of that mascara had gotten under the lid.” As confused as Brenda and Lorenzo, Jesse at least has a sense of how she fits within the loose fraternity of reporters and ambulance chasers:

“There were those addicted to the information race, the desire to get there first. . . . For others, it was a compulsive craving for the truth. . .There were those who got off on being around cops. . . . And then there were those, and in this group Jesse included herself, who were addicted to something she thought of as the Infilling--the compulsive hankering to witness, to absorb, to taste human behavior in extremis. . .Jesse needed these people to come inside her, to give her life, a life, and she loved them for it.”

It is Jesse’s good luck that Lorenzo owes her. In a fit of improvisation, he asks her to babysit the overwrought Brenda in Brenda’s Gannon apartment while he continues his investigation. It is the exclusive of a lifetime. Yet Jesse’s tragedy is that she’s a dumper. All she is equipped to do is dump bits of information to her editor over her cellular phone for a faceless writer to mold into a news article. While she can crack the code, get into the crime scene, she lacks the talent--like 90% of her journalistic brethren--to write her way out of a sidebar. Filled with the adrenalin of the exclusive, she tries to write Brenda’s story. Yet every paragraph begins “In a timeless gesture of grief as old as . . .”

Surrounding these three are an urban shooting gallery of good cops and bad, petty pushers and weary mothers, and, in one inspired subplot, a motley crew of Samaritans: a posse of child finders composed of Vietnam vets and lost mothers, “as ruthless, as manipulative, as driven,” Jesse notes, “as any reporter [she] had ever known.”


In search of the lost Cody, they wander through Dempsy and Gannon, back and forth across the asphalt oval at the center of the Armstrong projects where “dozens of new refrigerators [lie] awaiting installation, resting on their backs in open crates like a moonstruck sea of coffins,” and, in the last act, into Freedomtown, a deserted amusement park on a spit of the western shore of the Hudson river. Built as the Jersey answer to New York’s Freedomland (a real-life fun fair done in by the 1964 New York World’s Fair), Freedomtown metamorphosed into a summer concert stage for black singers like Little Stevie Wonder, the Marvelettes and Mary Wells, before sinking, like all American symbols, into a marsh of bankruptcy and weeds. At the end, all the actors in Price’s drama congregate in Freedomtown beneath a crumbling replica of the great Chicago Fire, to bury their dreams. “Where I grew up,” Lorenzo says, “the only things dreams was good for was giving you a number to play the next morning.”

The grand theater for all this opera is New Jersey, which, if one goes by Philip Roth’s recent “American Pastoral” and Steinberg’s famous New Yorker map, is the heart of the heart of the country. Price’s New Jersey is not so far away either from the New Jersey that Richard Ford chose for his own manifesto on the middle-American hero. Price’s “Freedomland” shares not only a state with Ford’s “Independence Day” but a national holiday too. The apotheosis of Price’s novel happens on July 4th, with firecrackers providing only the weakest of echoes of more familiar bombs bursting in air.

Setting, character--Price is also a masterful orchestrator. In the detective novel where pace is everything, Price dares to slow the tempo from techno-rap to a dense Mahler adagio, in which you can feel the notes stacking up into sultry, urine-scented harmonies like the dimly lighted floors of a high-rise project.

But it is as a moralist that Price shows the courage to make a big noise. Richard Price is America’s Dickens, Dempsy and Gannon his Two Cities, and race his Industrial Revolution, mill and mill wheel tied around the neck of the nation. We’ve always known the moral: The criminal justice system, the media system, the literary system, are ill-equipped to solve the infinite injustices spawned by the racial divide in American society.


Yet Price’s variations on the theme are uniquely chilling. On one side there is Brenda, the white woman, talking about black people: “They’re the other, they’re. . . . It’s safe to care for them, it’s safe to put out for them because, because they’re not quite real to me. And if I had to guess? I’d say I’m not quite real to them either.”

On the other, there’s Billy Williams, a black man, a college graduate and a victim of Wall Street downsizing: "[I]t’s, like, most white people--for me--I feel like they’re not so much talking to me as they’re watching themselves talking to me, like, admiring themselves talking to me--and I play this guessing game. Like, how many minutes into this conversation, no matter what we’re talking about right now--could be sports, the market, could be the weather--but how many minutes is it gonna take for race to come up. . . . It never fails. Never.”

And these two, Brenda and Billy, are two who mix, work with, laugh with, sleep with the other! Try as we might to talk about sports, the market, the weather, the carjacking grabs our attention. And it’s the subject of race that has jacked this nation. It may take a tougher man than Spike Lee to capture the horror of “Freedomland” on film, someone, say, like D.W. Griffith.