- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

By Richard Price
Knopf, $25, 379 pages

Fiction writers usually invent geographies to populate with characters and plots. Good old-fashioned verisimilitude, in varying degrees, assists them as they go about creating the stage for whatever concerns them. They must determine the role, if any, of place in their fictions, a role that can range from the simple background scenery found in, say, "Tom Jones" or "Pamela" to large, complex locations that take on, as London does in Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent," the full weight of character itself.
James Joyce's Dublin is a powerful force in the lives of his characters, and William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County acts on and is acted upon by his brood of conflicted characters. And just think of what John O'Hara called his "Pennsylvania Protectorate": Pottsville, Pa., a small town in Schuylkill County, became, throughout several novels and over 50 short stories, the shell to enclose his "Gibbsville, Lantenengo County."
In many ways, never changing Gibbsville overshadows the always changing historical Pottsville, and there is even a walking tour of sites literary sleuths, both professional and amateur, have associated with O'Hara's Gibbsville fiction. It seems obvious to any reader familiar with O'Hara's work, however, that Gibbsville is of secondary interest to its creator because as a social realist, he was concerned with how people lived in a particular time. O'Hara never let his stage dominate his actors, which is one of the weaknesses of "Samaritan," the new novel from another social realist, Richard Price.
Since the appearance of his first novel, "The Wanderers," in 1974, Mr. Price has skillfully staked out his fictional turf. He has, in novels such as "Bloodbrothers," "Ladies' Man," "The Breaks," "Clockers," and "Freedomland," mapped the boundaries within which his characters play out their roles. He has shown himself to have a superb ear and eye for the way people speak and live in neighborhoods where most readers of this review would never venture.
People who know the streets of the Bronx, the setting for some of his novels, have made it clear that Mr. Price tells-it-like-it-is, as well he should, since he lived there. He captures the language and style of street hustlers, gang members, drug pushers, hookers, etc. In addition, he knows how to delineate cops, probation clerks, the owners of small businesses. His characters sound real, even though some of them occasionally fail to act realistically.
In "Samaritan," Mr. Price returns to Dempsy, N.J., for the third time since he created the town in "Clockers" and refined it in "Freedomland." Most of the important events in his new novel, a good read but not his best work, take place in and around Hopewell Houses, a seedy project inhabited by a variety of races and religions, good and bad people on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
Into this postmodern ghetto comes Ray Mitchell, one of the novel's two central characters. A white man in his early 40s, Ray returns to the neighborhood of his youth and brings with him the money he earned writing for television. (For those of you who like to find the teller in the tale, it is interesting to know that after his fourth novel, Mr. Price earned a good living by writing for the movies. "Sea of Love" and "The Color Of Money" are just two of his credits.).
Why Ray returns to Dempsy is never crystal clear, but back in the 'hood he begins to spread some of his money around, becoming a sucker for every sob story and small-time hustle. He doesn't exert himself in any significant way except perhaps when he tries teaching barely literate students at his old high school, or when having an affair with Daneille Martinez, the wife of an imprisoned murderous drug lord, or when trying to atone for his absent, cocaine-addled years by being a good father to his daughter, Ruby.
Much of what Ray does seems quite naive except for the overpowering suspicion that his motives are self-serving. His self-pity makes his good deeds seem silly. It is as though Ray Mitchell just cannot connect with anyone or anything. He does try to make sense out of his surroundings.
When he returns to Dempsy, he sees that "The commercial strip under the PATH tracks that ran past the Hopewell Houses wasn't as desolate as he had anticipated; more beat-down, for sure, but if anything livelier, the Italian and Jewish stores replaced by the ubiquitous red-and-yellow awnings of bodegas and Caribbean vegetable marts, of Jamaican jerk chicken and patty shacks. The corner candy store was now a dispatch office for a dial-a-cab outfit, the movies an Iglesia Pentecostal, the florists a Church of Cherubim and Seraphim.
"Food Land was now the Cinderella House of Beauty, a formerly vacant lot the site of an abandoned prefab IRS annex. The German homemade-ice cream parlor was a fire-blackened ruin, probably standing like that for God knew how long, and the bowling alley a discount carpet outlet that had gone out of business and had, Ray assumed, been preceded by half a dozen other enterprises each in its turn having gone belly-up too."
Mr. Price certainly does know how to write, but Ray still doesn't know how to relate to the world he describes. At one point, he seems to grasp his situation: "Ray went hollow with dread, with epiphany. This whole home-from-the-hills fantasy that he had engineered for himself here was all wrong; retreating into the past like this just another way of advancing to the grave." Moments like this are rare for Ray. He is, in many ways, one of T.S. Eliot's hollow men.
The second main character, Detective Nerese "Tweetie" Adams, enters the novel when Ray is severely beaten by an assailant he refuses to identify. Nerese, approaching retirement, sees the case as her last one and is, therefore, anxious for its successful solution. In addition, Ray had done her a kindness when they were kids in the same neighborhood. Sadly, the mystery of who savagely beat the good Samaritan is not very interesting, and readers might prefer that Mr. Price return to his extraordinary powers of description. Their stories bounce off one another to reveal, but never really illuminate, how and why they live their lives.
The drugs and violence, the racism and amorality that each deals with gives Mr. Price the platform he needs to show us a view of our country's abused and forgotten citizens. Unfortunately, neither Ray or Nerese, who is not above ethical lapses, is a strong enough character to make "Samaritan" as important a novel as, say, "Clockers."
There is no doubt that Richard Price is an important American fictionist. Perhaps better than anyone else he has led readers into areas most of his colleagues are unable to go. Because he is so good a writer, "Samaritan" will reward most readers, though it will irritate others. The mean streets he creates are ones we should all experience, even if only in books. His cast of characters, while sometimes mouthpieces for a social realist, can be rich, even if just appearing in cameos or as walk-ons. After all, we do have our own appointments in Samara.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic in Pottsville, Pa.

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