The novel that never sleeps

Reviews | published in Real Change on Dec. 31st, 2008
Subject: Richard Price

Lush Life”, by Richard Price, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2008, Hardcover, 464 pages, $26


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Back in 2000, 2001, I spent some time in New York. Brooklyn, to be specific. Lived with a guy who was a complete jazz nerd: must’ve owned 2,000 cd’s if he owned one. Monk, Coltrane, Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, and a whole mess of other people I’d never heard of before, but wound up loving.

Two, maybe three times a week, we used to go hear live music. Sometimes we’d take the D train, shuttling over the East River, high above the city; in the distance, the still standing Twin Towers. Other times, he drove, a beat-up white van cruising over the Manhattan Bridge. The music at the clubs was stratospheric. Half the time, I didn’t know what I was listening to, but oh, live jazz. You can’t beat it.

My favorite club sat just above the Lower East Side. The glass from broken windshields glittered on the potholed streets like a bungled diamond heist; lamps along the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges glowed like a strand of Christmas lights for a family of Goliaths; steam rose from manhole covers with hellish fury; the stank of piss bruised your nostrils. The area was beautiful, hypnotic, terrifying, alive, hysterical, dangerous, hyped up, strung out, in your face, and wide awake. Kind of like Richard Price’s Lush Life.

The novel takes place in the same neighborhood. Set in 2003, it’s a story about people, people whose lives are a mess going up one side and a wreck coming down the other. Scary thing is, their lives are about to get a whole lot messier. And the wreckage they’re about to face? It’s a head-on collision.

Not that Eric Cash knows this when he sees the crowd outside a market managed by a pair of Yemeni brothers. The horde, mostly Latino, have shown up for the miracle: the Virgin Mary, she’s inside. Or her face is, in the frost clinging to the glass in the freezer case. Eric manages a bar just down the street, and when he and a bartender who works there, Ike Marcus, go check out the Virgin themselves, they find the image lacking. Disappointed, Ike opens the freezer door. Seconds later, the virgin melts. Ike wonders if he’ll pay a price for his transgression. Damn right he will.

Later that night, Eric and Ike, along with a third barhopper they meet, get wasted. Stumbling down the street, the trio runs into two guys. Give up the wallets, the guys demand. Eric hands his over. Their besotted friend falls down drunk. Ike steps up to the muggers and says, “Not tonight, my man.”

And “then—pop—too late, the guy chest-shot, looking up on impact as if someone had called his name from a window, then crumpling without ever looking back down.” As Ike lays dying, Eric calls 911. At least, that what he tells the cops.

But Matty Clark, lead detective on the case, knows Eric’s lying. He never made that call. And the Bambi-eyed Yolanda Bello, the other detective working the shooting, she knows the I-phoned-to-get-help-for-my-friend story is bunk. Seems a couple of witnesses — referred to by the cops as “wits” — who were across the street at the time of the shooting, they say there weren’t three guys and two muggers. Just three guys. But Eric swears they were cornered by muggers, one Black, one Latino.

Still, the cops ain’t buying it. So, with Eric down in the questioning room, they decide to work him over, good-cop, bad-cop style. Make that sweet cop, evil cop, with Yolanda wearing both coats at the same time:

“Eric, listen, Matty and me? Every day we’re up to our ass in human garbage. Psychos and sociopaths and common household scum. Every day. Does that even remotely sound like you? Doesn’t to me. As far as I’m concerned? You’re almost as much a victim in this as Ike, so here’s the deal. You tell us how it went down, tell us where the gun is, and we’ll make this as close to a cakewalk for you as we can. Will be happy to. But the first move here has got to be yours.”

Yet Eric insists he’s telling the truth. And the gun? He doesn’t know a thing about it.

Maybe Yolanda and Matty would do better to question Tristan and Little Dap. Two teens who live in the projects nearby, the duo were out that night trying to make a little cash pushing pot. And Little Dap did indeed give Tristan a .22, just in case things got iffy. And the two were in the same neighborhood as the shooting. But does that make one of them a murderer?

Maybe. Probably. Definitely. But then again, maybe not. Even when Price — author of bestselling police procedurals and a cowriter for the HBO series The Wire — tells you who pulled the trigger, at times, you doubt it. That’s because it’s hard to believe anyone’s story when everybody in the book is running a game on somebody else. Everybody. Eric lies about using his cell phone. Yolanda makes up stories to get suspects to give up the goods. Matty misleads his higher-ups as he trawls for more resources to solve the case. A reporter writing about the murder tells his editor Patrick Swayze was involved in the shooting. The wits leave out key details. Ike’s father, his son murdered, won’t come clean about Ike’s home life. Little Dap acts big by telling untruths. Tristan won’t confess to even minor mistakes. And these are just the major characters.

Then there are the minors, a dramatis personae sprinkled with every bit of ethnic/cultural/religious difference you can think of: white, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Black, Yemeni, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Orthodox Jew, Muslim, Christian, atheist, artist, writer, drunk, punk, dunce. Everywhere there’s booze, pot, coke, sex, thugs, guns, deals, wheels, cuffs, fists, blood. And the whole stew is marvelous. Flat out, uncut, top shelf, hard-knocks FANTASTIC. That interrogation scene, right after the murder? It goes on for more than 100 pages, not one word wasted. And nearly all of the book’s action takes place within a few gritty blocks near the Lower East Side.

So, when I claim Lush Life is a book about messed up people, that’s only partly true. It’s also a book about a place, a specific neighborhood that’s becoming a gentrified cesspool, where the citizens crawl over each other for dominance like roaches after scraps left on the kitchen counter. It’s the kind of read that’ll take you somewhere, like a bridge to a new destination. Like Miles, like Bird, Price’s wild, improvisatory writing style will take you there. And you won’t ever want to come back. Ever.


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