IN the early 1990s, Richard Price made a decision to change direction in his work. Until then, he’d been an atmospheric urban novelist, the author of, among other titles, “The Wanderers,” a Bronx-based coming-of-age novel set in the early 1960s, and “Ladies’ Man,” about a week in the life of a door-to-door salesman who’s looking for love. These are self-contained books, small and character-driven, reminiscent in places of the gritty realism of Hubert Selby Jr.'s “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” (Selby, indeed, reviewed “The Wanderers” for the New York Times Book Review.)
Price, however, was looking to do something different, to break out, to write a novel on a grand scale. The result was “Clockers,” a 600-plus-page epic about a crack dealer and a homicide cop, set in the projects of a city closely resembling Newark, N.J. Sprawling, kaleidoscopic, marked by an intuitive understanding of the city as an elaborately constructed landscape, “Clockers” pushed the parameters of Price’s fiction, expanding on the vision of his earlier books in favor of something not unlike the social novel of the 18th and 19th centuries. In that sense, although his material was utterly contemporary, the dynamic of Price’s narrative -- its sense of milieu, of scope, of what it means to live at a particular moment -- made for an odd sort of throwback: “Crime and Punishment” meets “Vanity Fair.”
Price, of course, was not the only writer to look ahead by looking backward, to rethink the idea of the social novel in a culture that seemed to have passed it by. In 1989, Tom Wolfe published a manifesto in Harper’s agitating for a more expansive approach to fiction; his own first novel, “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (the title a nod to “Vanity Fair”), was an illustration of these principles -- or so he implied. Seven years later, Jonathan Franzen made a related argument in another Harper’s essay, writing, “I mourn the retreat into the Self and the decline of the broad-canvas novel for the same reason I mourn the rise of suburbs: I like maximum diversity and contrast packed into a single exciting experience.”
Franzen saw the beauty of the social novel in its wide-angled cross-section of lifestyles and characters, each trying to forge a passage through the world. The same could be said of Price’s later fiction, including “Freedomland,” which begins with a carjacking and kidnapping that precipitates an urban breakdown, and “Samaritan,” about a man who is beaten nearly to death but refuses to press charges, preferring to remain outside the law. For Price, then, the social novel is also a crime novel, or maybe it’s just that in the intersection between criminality and citizenship we get our truest sense of what the city means.
Price’s eighth novel, “Lush Life,” represents a further exploration of this notion. It takes place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is -- as it has always been -- a crucible of urban change. Here we find a New York panoply, from the community’s longtime Chinese and Hispanic underclass to the artists and trendoids (largely white and moneyed) who have gentrified the area. Not unlike “Freedomland,” the book begins with a crime that seems simple but unravels into unforeseen complications; like “Samaritan,” it involves the uneasy push-and-pull between telling and not telling, between the demands of the individual and those of society at large.
At the center of the action is Eric Cash, a 35-year-old manager at a fashionable neighborhood eatery named Berkmann’s and one of those not-quite figures you find in hipper parts of cities: a not-quite-actor, a not-quite-writer, a not-quite-adult not quite comfortable with the idea that he will never fulfill his dreams. Then, one night, on the way home from a pub crawl, Eric watches as his co-worker Ike Marcus gets gunned down in an attempted robbery. Eric is arrested for the crime, although he’s quickly released when another witness backs up his version of events. The experience, however, does something to him, and as the novel progresses he retreats into a shadow territory of his own creation, in which everything he thought he knew is all of a sudden rendered “incomprehensible, as meaningless and blithery as whatever was coming out of the television; what the world needs not.”
This is a vivid setup -- cinematic, even, which is hardly a surprise. In addition to his novels, Price has written a number of screenplays, including “The Color of Money” and “Night and the City,” and he now writes for HBO’s “The Wire.” In “Lush Life” (as in “Clockers,” “Freedomland” and “Samaritan” before it), he brings that experience to the page, creating a story that ripples with tension, marked by jump cuts, parallel narratives and razor-sharp dialogue.
Of all the developments in Price’s fiction, this may be the most striking: the clarity of the construction, the precision with which his characters interact. His early work -- “The Wanderers,” especially -- is diffuse in places, loosely built, with dialogue that sometimes operates more as a plot device than an approximation of the way people really speak. Here that’s not an issue; “Lush Life” is a rocket of a book that, unfolding over the course of little more than a week, never lets up, whether Price is writing about the changing neighborhood or tracing the odyssey of Ike’s father, Billy, whose behavior grows increasingly erratic as his son’s killing remains unsolved. Some of the most compelling material in the novel, in fact, involves Billy’s relationship with Matty Clark, the detective assigned to the crime, who alternately looks out for the bereaved man and uses him to keep public attention on the case.
But it’s in the nuances that Price really shines, especially his account of how Ike’s contemporaries deal with the murder, turning it into an ongoing performance piece. “I don’t know,” Eric complains. “Sometimes it feels like everybody I know down here went to the same . . . art camp or something.” That’s a deft expression of the disconnect at the heart of the neighborhood. The idea is that it’s all for real, every bit of it, and that we risk losing everything if we can’t see that.
This, of course, is the key to the social novel, the notion of fiction as a reflection of reality. The irony, however, is that at key moments Price loses sight of that, letting the novel’s gritty sense of truth lapse in favor of a heightened sense of drama. Eric’s police interrogation, for instance, goes on for much too long and, perhaps because we know he is not the killer, seems forced, not quite logical in how it plays out. Why, we wonder, has he been arrested when there is no physical evidence, when all the witness statements aren’t in?
The same is true of a memorial service later in the novel, in which the neighborhood art kids talk about Ike before marching to the scene of the killing for a ceremony at an impromptu shrine. Price nails the self-absorption of the urban aesthete: “I don’t know if I’ll get that part or not,” one says, addressing the deceased, “but in the end it doesn’t make all that much of a difference. Because, Ike? . . . I now know this. I am an artist. . . . I would say you’ll always be in my memory, buddy, but it’s more than that. You will always be at my side.” But then Price undermines the construct by carrying it too far, as a straw likeness of Ike is burned, “this man-boy-golem . . . enveloped in burly rolls of flame.” Is it possible that anyone would allow such a bonfire to be staged on the sidewalks of the city, especially in a neighborhood as close and narrow as the Lower East Side?
Toward the end of “Lush Life,” the owner of Berkmann’s decides to open a spinoff restaurant in an Atlantic City casino. “Twenty feet away,” Price writes, “trompe l’oeil tenement scrims were being hoisted into place and nail-gunned into their wooden braces; some windows adorned with cats or aspidistras, others with fat-armed Molly Goldbergs, their elbows propped on pillows.” Here, we have an almost-perfect metaphor for the book itself, which like the faux Berkmann’s, aspires to an authenticity it can’t completely achieve. Yes, it’s deftly written, and yes, in many places, beautifully expressive. Still, for all his observations of the city and his insights into the tensions of a changing neighborhood, Price can’t quite bridge the gap between this social novel and the subtleties of real life.