Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lush Life by Richard Price

Fans of the television show The Wire, which Price was a writer for, will certainly like this cop procedural, which is fast moving, engagingly written, and realist enough to be taken seriously. But it's definitely a genre novel. The dominant protagonist is a cop, left purely to type (as in not a real person). He's a bad dad, a touch of an alcoholic, burnt out. But he's merely the guide through the novel, the thing that makes it accessible to the bulk of bestseller readers... there are however some much more real characters who get a lot of play, and there is lots of social commentary slyly built in. For example, one character--a twentysomething white guy who's writing a screenplay while working at a bar--is witness to a murder and when he's brought in for questioning the police clearly think he did it. He's traumatized by their questioning and as a result refuses to cooperate once they realize he is innocent and in fact their only witness. Now as a plot point this is clever--lots of drama in the police interrogation and it allows most of the novel to pass without the witness identifying the killer (we, the readers, know whodunit from the start). But it also works as a coded explanation as to why so many residents of the projects won't come forward and help the police solve the crime. If Price had used a poor black guy instead of the middle class white dreamer, a lot of readers (readers who would not consider themselves racist at all) probably would have balked--said why on earth isn't this guy cooperating. But by using a witness who is more like his readership, those readers are more likely to imagine themselves in the situation and then hopefully be able to step back and understand, oh that's why it's hard to get police cooperation, lots of people feel the police aren't on their side. Which is not to say all of Price's readers are middle class white folk, but realistically--lots of them are. And also not to say that Price is criticizing the police--he's very careful to create good cops and dumb cops, good criminals and dumb criminals...

Price gets a lot of love from people who don't usually give love to genre novels--and that's because his novels aren't escapist. They are entertaining, but not mindlessly or falsely so. One of the elements he adds to the cop stuff is a sense of history. The setting is lower Manhattan and the buildings are old tenements that show a history--in their very walls--of their Jewish past. And Price nicely builds that in to the writing. Readers are reminded that these stories--of poverty and oppression and trying to get a leg up--have been going on for generations, sometimes shifting from one minority group to another. Price gets lots of attention for his dialogue--which is great, tv ready for sure--but it seems to me the other stuff that really adds a deeper layer.

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