- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2008

LUSH LIFE

By Richard Price

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26, 464 pages

REVIEWED BY CHRISTIAN TOTO

Richard Price’s latest crime drama features troubled cops and a murder witness who can’t bear to look at himself in the mirror.

In “Lush Life,” the author’s first novel in five years, Mr. Price x-rays an otherwise straightforward shooting to find the racial and class divisions seething below the surface. Mr. Price is hardly tilling virgin soil. Seedy cop novels set in the Big Apple are nothing new, but it’s the way that Mr. Price spins his stories that makes them feel like minor revelations.

And if not for a few trite subplots, “Lush Life” would stand amongst the best Manhattan-based crime novels.

“Lush Life” revolves around three restaurant co-workers who take a drunken, late-night stroll on the Lower East Side. When a thug steps out of the shadows and points a gun in their direction, one of them takes a bold, and deadly, step forward.

“Not tonight, my man,” he says before a single gunshot pierces the night.

Struggling writer and full-time restaurant manager Eric Cash, mostly sober at the time of the shooting, is left to fill in the blanks for police investigators the next day. But he’s acting so jittery it seems as if he may have had a hand in the crime. That’s how veteran officers Yolanda Bello and Matty Clark take his testimony. And it’s hard to blame them. But Eric’s motivations aren’t even clear to himself. He’s not nearly as detestable as the negligent mother in Dennis Lehane’s “Gone, Baby, Gone” who finds her toddler missing, but he’s cut from the same emotional cloth.

It’s left primarily to Yolanda and Matty to find the shooter, but they’re getting little help either from Eric or the higher ups. But the detectives know how being persistent can help break a case, even if it looks like there isn’t a clue left in all of New York.

Mr. Price explores racial inequalities with the honesty of someone who knows they exist but wouldn’t think of leaning on them to juice his narrative. He’s equally adept at bridging the gaping chasms between the city’s social classes. At times,”Lush Life” reads like the best nonfiction.

Just don’t look for any warm, fuzzy types for the reader to latch onto here. The closest we get is Yolanda, the tough cop who can whip up a maternal pose long enough to loosen a suspect’s tongue.

Mr. Price’s characters rarely do what we expect of them. Recall the protagonist in “Samaritan,” who readers couldn’t figure out until the final few chapters. Here, that same method scores with Eric, a young man whose life up until now has been a slow, steady drip of disappointment. No wonder he doesn’t want to talk to the police. He’d rather clam up than attempt any self-reflection. He can’t survive another disappointment.

The victim’s father, Billy Marcus, is another prototypical Price player, as hard to pigeonhole as everyone else here. Marcus’ wife is a glaring exception, and one of the least well defined players in “Lush Life.” This brassy gal seems stripped from Matty’s lonely imagination.

Far more believable is our killer, a rapper-in-training oblivious to the wheels of justice spinning to find him. We see the criminal incubator that is his home life,but Mr. Price doesn’t let him off the hook. It’s clear he’s savvy enough to have picked a separate path.

Perhaps the boldest pages involve an unconventional wake thrown for the departed. The victim’s pals gather to celebrate his life, not his passing. It’s all well and good, but too many mourners turn the event into a chance to work the crowds for their own gratification. It’s poignant and pathetic, and Mr. Price doesn’t skimp in either direction.

A few false notes interrupt the melody of Mr. Price’s skeletal prose.

Early on, Eric sets up his grill in order to burn what’s left of his latest screenplay, a sequence that’s been played out both in print and onscreen. And the trouble Matty’s grown children have seen smacks of a soapdish subplot. Clearly, the story doesn’t demand such mawkish interludes to lend Matty depth.

“Lush Life” leaves plenty of space for rapid-fire dialogue,and both the cop talk and the street slang sound equally authentic When one of Mr. Price’s characters cracks wise, it’s funny and raw, never an attempt at comic relief. Mr. Price’s street cred infects every page.

Underneath it all, the novel stands as an indictment of not just the politicizedpolice system but of today’s 20- and 30-something crowd who demand any kind of notoriety but lack the grit to fight for it. Eric steals money from the waiters at his restaurant without so much as a second thought. One of the victim’s best pals uses the shooting to act out for the media. All the young men and women in “Lush Life” are either wannabe actors, posers or drifters.

Add “Lush Life” to the stack of Mr. Price novels which skillfully peer at big city crime to explore the flaws of the victims as well as the perpetrators.

Christian Toto, who writes frequently on popular culture for The Washington Times, lives in Denver, Colo.

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