Vintage Books/Random House
US Trade Paperback
377 Pages; $14.00
Hardcover Publication Date: June 1, 2003
Trade Paperback Publication Date: June 8, 2004
Date Reviewed: July 6, 2004
Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2004
Most stories set in the urban projects of contemporary America are stories of drug dealers and junkies, hookers and gangbangers, all with guns, guns and more guns. They are stories of the violence, fear and death that permeate the landscape and the uneducated and impoverished project residents who are both consumed and defined by their environment. These stories are realistic, portraying bleak and unrelenting desolation in chilling, hard-hitting fiction. But these aren't the only stories from the projects.
In 'Samaritan', Richard Price explores the gritty urban world, the world of racial tension, drugs, desolation, and futility. He does this by making that world small, finely focused and intensely personal. He creates realistic stories of the day-to-day lives of people who care for their children, care for each other and work at their jobs - people who survive and occasionally thrive. 'Samaritan' delivers the same bleak environment and the same hard-hitting fiction, but it tells vastly different stories.
The Samaritan is Ray Mitchell, former coke addict, cab driver, teacher and successful Hollywood writer, who returns to the New Jersey projects where he grew up to "make a dent" in the lives of his neighbors. Teaching a pro-bono creative writing class at the local high school, Ray re-engages with the friends and neighbors, black and white, he knew as a child, with the ill-disguised hope of helping - maybe even saving - those who are still there and still struggling. When Ray is violently beaten and slowly recovering in the hospital, he refuses to name his assailant, admitting instead that he "deserved" the beating. Detective Nerese Ammons, a childhood friend who's soon to retire from the police department, undertakes a solo quest to uncover the culprit and to understand Ray's reticence to identify him. She succeeds at both.
'Samaritan' is structured as a police procedural, allowing Price to take advantage of the tension, the controlled revelations of character and actions that mark that sub-genre. But make no mistake, this is not a "crime" novel about unraveling clues and reconstructing past events to ensure justice is done. The identity of Ray's assailant is nowhere near as important, nor as compelling, as the characters in the drama. This is a whydunnit, not a whodunnit. Using the police investigation as a coat hanger, Price's 'Samaritan' is a social-political story of racial divides, class differences, generational gaps and economic barriers and the people who survive in that environment.
Price sets his story in the fictional projects of Dempsey, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan, post 9/11. He populates the projects with people, old and young, white, black, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Jamacian, a true melting pot of mostly poor, undereducated and underserved citizens. Price's characters live with drugs, beatings and rapes, with untold violence and futility, as part of their daily routine. Cops and criminals, victors and victims co-mingle and coexist in a world that's harsh and hard. Price describes this world with deceptive low-key simplicity, the daily violence but an implied backdrop to the lives of those trying to do what's needed to survive and sometimes to do more than that. Price's urban grit is subtly infused with heart; his desolate terrain admits an occasional fleeting ray of sun.
'Samaritan' is a story told in stories. Ray, desperately seeking connection with his teen-age daughter Ruby, tells stories of his youth in the projects. Nerese, whose childhood connection to Ray is poignantly related in one of those stories, in turn tells stories of her own. Stories of her gay brother now dying of AIDS, the discrimination she faced as she battled to rise in the ranks of the police, and of raising her son and the sacrifices she made for his well-being. Ray helps a project family by giving them money to bury their son, dead of an overdose, and they provide stories too; stories of strength, of resignation, of contradiction and compassion. In prose that is street-lyrical and pointedly perceptive, Price gently lasers these characters and lays bare their souls, exposing their fears, their inadequacies, their struggles and their deep-seated strength.
Ray is an unlikely and often unlikable protagonist. Seeking desperately to do good and be liked, to be a hero in this small part of the world, he is well meaning but myopically selfish. His desperate need to find or fabricate meaningful connections is painfully and agonizingly exposed; he is equally naive and noble. "Ray...always says ''just want to make a dent'. But what he really wants to do is make a splash. There's a big difference."
Price's gift is the ability to create a nuanced reality, built on keen observation and exceptional linguistic talent, where violence is ever present but never overtly portrayed. He has written a penetrating urban narrative about race and class, about divides and bridges that is small in scope and vast in human consequence. 'Samaritan' is not a splash; it is a dent, a truly compelling and powerful story that demonstrates that it is not the grand gesture that matters. It's the small one that is true and pure; the one that is fleeting, but life-changing. 'Samaritan' is a remarkable and memorable novel that eloquently exposes reality with a hard edge but a soft center.