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Richard Price
Lush Life
Reviewed by: Dustin Kenall © 2009

US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN: 978-0-374-29925-5
Publication Date: 03-04-2008
455 pages ; $26
Date Reviewed : 01-11-2009

Index: Mystery  General-Fiction

Good books make for good reviews. Not just favorable reviews, but well written encomiums lifted upward by singsongs of prose. The reviewer leaves the book with a residue of the same inspiration and fervor that the author transmitted onto the pages and is impelled to share the discovery with the widest possible audience through words that will not only jump off the page but grab the reader's coat and drag her to the checkout counter at Barnes & Noble's with a copy of the book placed firmly in her hands. For this review of Richard Price's new novel Lush Life, consider yourself on notice: Price has written a masterpiece.

And the acclaim has been deafening. Check out Sam Anderson's brilliant, be-bop homage written in the hard-boiled argot of Price's Quality-of-Life police squad in New York Magazine. Or take a look at the New York Times's Michiko Kakutani — she of the sober-minded, unforgiving review—in a euphoric dizzy dropping names like Mamet, Chase, and Leonard and calling Price the Mount Everest of masters of the spoken word. Read closely James Woods's close reading of Price's magical (not reportorial or faithful but fabulously fabulist) dreams of dialogue in The New Yorker. More than just a novel rewarding on its own terms, Lush Life is so fecund with creative possibility and observational insight that it is spilling over into the cultural zeitgeist, joining a literary canon (Bonfire of the Vanities, Underworld) of novels obsessed over New York not just as setting but as character, as quintessential Ur-city.

Dressed as a run-of-the mine police procedural, Lush Life (the name of a too-trendy singles dance bar in the novel and a melancholy jazz standard by Duke Ellington's songwriter) dips into the cultural aquarium that is the Lower East Side of Manhattan circa 2003 and traces the ripples from the mugging-gone-wrong murder of well-liked, newbie bartender Ike Marcus. "Juxed" point blank by two kids from the nearby Lemlich "PJs," Eric Cash, the thirty-five year-old manager at a local restaurant, wisely drops his eyes and thrusts forth his wallet, Steven Boulware, a yuppie actor manque, plays possum drunkenly collapsing to the ground unconscious, and Ike utters his last words before a bullet stops his heart: "Not tonight, my man."

Enter the police. On the words of two witnesses, Eric is a suspect. For seventy pages, we plunge into a riveting interrogation in which the police utterly demolish Eric's psychological defenses without touching him. It is both a tautly wound cat-and-mouse scene as well as a telling insight into the effectiveness and dangers of aggressive, non-violent interrogation techniques.

The rest of the novel is split between closing the case and watching the characters descend into their own personal hells. Eric spirals into depression: from the lead detective Matty Clark, "You are a self-centered, self-pitying, cowardly, envious, resentful, failed-ass career waiter. That's your everyday jacket." Billy Marcus, Ike's father, initially in denial ("It's not him") becomes more of a ghost than his son, disappearing from his family and reviewing every conversation with his son in his mind: "My son, Ike, loved New York . . . and this city chewed him up . . This city has blood on its muzzle. This city . . . . What does it take to survive here. Who survives. The, the already half-dead? The unconscious? Do you survive because of what is in you? Or because of what isn't . . . . Is, is heart a handicap? Is innocence? Is joy? My son . . . . I made so many mistakes . . . Please."

Price takes the pulse of the community as the police try to suss out a witness or some evidence after the case is several days cold, with nothing to go on but recent unconnected parole releases and muggings. One victim, a Tel Aviv transplant and deli owner, delivers no case-specific information but gives the goods on the City: "My workers are Arabs, my best friend is a black man from Alabama, my girlfriend's a Puerto Rican, and my landlord is a half-Jew bastard . . . . I read in the paper yesterday that the circus is setting up in the Madison Square Garden . . . elephants . . . walking through the Holland Tunnel at dawn. . . . This is a hell of a place." Or from the perspective of Tristan, a sixteen year old from the Lemlich tenements with a .22 and an abusive, alcoholic ex-stepfather: "King of Hell/Know him well/I walk right in/Don't Ring the bell" he versifies as he sneaks into his guardian's bedroom to slip a Chinese paper Rolex inside his night table -- a gift for the dead that lays a curse on the living. And, always waiting always watching, the Quality of Life Task Force: "four sweatshirts in a bogus taxi set up on the corner of Clinton Street . . . to profile the incoming salmon run; their mantra: Dope, guns, overtime; time motto: Everyone's got something to lose." "Is dead tonight," they begin in the novel's prelude. "Restless, they finally pull out to honeycomb the narrow streets for an hour of endless tight right turns: falafel joint, jazz joint, gyro joint, corner. Schoolyard, creperie, realtor, corner. Tenement, tenement, tenement museum, corner. Pink Pony, Blind Tiger, muffin boutique, corner. Sex shop, tea shop, synagogue, corner. Boulangerie, bar, hat boutique, corner. Iglesia, gelateria, matzo shop, corner. Bollywood, Buddha, botanica, corner." A metaphor for the tour the novel takes the reader of the corners of the Lower East Side, where cultures collide and decay and people crash (East-coast style) into each other in an uncontrollable intersection of personality, opportunity, luck, and social determinism.

In the past five years, three great crime novels have appeared in the U.S.: The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos, Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley, and Lush Life by Richard Price. Of these, Lush Life is the most ambitious in its endeavor to transform the police procedural from a clever puzzle-solving exercise or by-the-numbers crime documentary into an existential examination of the line between melodrama and realism mediated by prose stylized in a rarefied emotional atmosphere. It punches into the realm of pure literature outside of genre and is better written than anything published recently by such eminence grises as Philip Roth or John Updike. In its authenticity of observation and fascination with the banality of crime, it resembles Zola's La Bete Humaine, carrying the tradition of the Nineteenth-century social novel into the Twenty-first. The reader must manage without the safety net of a traditional narrative arc; no cathartic bang or reckoning here, more of a postmodern whimper, a Godot-like recognition of the limits of story-telling. In Lush Life, one is witness to the rare feat of an author daring to reach beyond his grasp and succeeding. It is enough to say that if Price manages to top this with his next book, he'll have no place higher to go.

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