East Side Story

Richard Price is no stranger to urban chaos. Since he hit the literary scene as a 25-year-old wunderkind with his first novel, "The Wanderers," in 1974, he has had few if any equals at getting the look and feel and, most important, the sound of urban America on paper. You want to find out how cops, drug dealers, store clerks, newshounds and bureaucrats walk and talk, pick up Price's "Clockers" or "Freedomland," or check out one of the scripts he wrote for HBO's acclaimed series "The Wire." All those millions of stories in the naked city? Sometimes it feels as though he wrote them all.

So it comes as a mild surprise to see Price fumbling when he tries to sum up Manhattan's Lower East Side, the polyglot neighborhood where he set his latest novel, "Lush Life." Sitting over a half-finished cappuccino growing colder by the minute, in a restaurant that he used as a major setting in his book, he talks about the multiple ethnicities and the rich, the poor and everyone in between vying for territory literally right outside the restaurant's door. He talks about waves of immigrants who have crashed through the neighborhood over two centuries. He talks about the expensive little dress boutiques that now dot the streets and sit side by side with aging synagogues and bodegas and yoga studios. (One of the nicest lines in "Lush Life" is in the opening pages where we ride along with four cops doing quality-of-life patrol in the neighborhood and the narrator ticks off the establishments they pass: "Tenement, tenement, tenement museum.") Finally he shrugs. "This place is like the ocean, and you're trying to empty it with a colander," he says. Then he describes a moment he witnessed a couple of years ago. It's like one of those moments in his novels when a dozen disparate elements suddenly click into focus and you see, as if you were standing there yourself, precisely what he's talking about. But make sure you're strapped in. This is a New Yorker talking:

"This van driven by an Italian and an Indian hit an Orthodox Jew crossing the street with two watermelons. It was roped off, a crime scene, an accident scene. So, you had these guys, this Orthodox, who had been dragged by the van, because the bumper caught his frock coat, and so he got dragged about half a block. And two ambulances came at once. One was Hatzolah—the Orthodox Jewish ambulance corps—it's a volunteer corps, it has to do with the religion, like service is very important. Then you had the ambulance from Cabrini Medical Center. So the Orthodox got there first, and they're putting the guy in their ambulance, and you got the guys from Cabrini standing there twirling their stethoscopes, and they're not too hot about these guys. And then you've got the crowd, and the crowd consists of five Chinese cops, all in uniform—given the neighborhood, you really need Oriental cops around. You've got four plainclothes cops, all white. You've got a crowd of Hispanics. You've got the Orthodox guy's wife sitting there with his wide-brimmed hat upturned and his coat folded and his shattered glasses on top. You got a dozen La Bohemers, these twentysomething kids all tatted up and on bikes, just watching. You have a junkie sitting there in a beach chair, and you smell something burning, and you realize he's nodded out and his cigarette is catching his thigh hairs on fire. And you have, like, one old Irish broad with a can of beer at 1 in the afternoon, and she looks at everything, and she says, 'I hate those c–––––––ers.' And I had no idea who she was referring to. And, folks, there you have it, the new Lower East Side."

With all due respect, not quite. That's merely an extremely delectable appetizer. "Lush Life," the work of a novelist for whom more is always more, gives you the whole show in 455 pages—a bursting-at-the-seams explosion of character, incident and, most important, place. Price says he's never thought of his settings as characters, but this time the location is the main character. It's those mean streets, and all the worlds they contain, that make the book so infinitely fascinating. Reduced to its skeleton, "Lush Life" is the story of a crime, a mugging that turns into a murder, with a victim shot dead on the sidewalk at 4 a.m. Price says he spent a year or so wandering the neighborhood, chatting up restaurant workers, going around with the police. ("You walk through a neighborhood, it's like looking at the ocean from above the water line. And then you go with cops, it's like putting on a snorkel mask and dipping your head underwater and you go, 'Whoa! I didn't know that was here'.") And still he had no clear idea where his story was coming from. Then a couple of late-night fatalities made the papers, "and that became the horse that I was going to ride through this very byzantine landscape."

Some of Price's biggest fans are crime novelists, such as George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, who revere his talent at evoking the mores and the talk of the urban netherworld. But Price himself is not a mystery novelist, at least not in the sense that he worries about who killed whom or uncovering some secret that explains everything in the end. "Lush Life" is the antithesis of police procedurals and shows like "Law & Order." Reality here is messy and often inconclusive. The culprits are clueless, and the cops, while world-weary and street-smart, do make mistakes. One chapter describes an interrogation scene that runs for 50 pages, a set piece of psychological horror that ends with a suspect all but confessing to a crime he did not commit. We know who the killer is in "Lush Life" even before he pulls the trigger. We know the two young men who were carousing with the murdered man. We know the cops, the parents of the victim and the boss of the restaurant where he worked. The story dips in and out of all these lives—and the disparate worlds they come from—that have been linked by a death, and watching how they interact is the business of this absorbing story.

The only head that Price is not particularly interested in exploring is his own. "I'm so busy trying to lead my life that if it has to be material for a book, I'm going to have a nervous breakdown." That said, he admits that "whatever you write, there's autobiography in it. And for me, I'm so not a cop and I'm so not a bad guy that I think that's what attracts me to them, to injecting myself into these people that are so not me. Listen, every time a character hits a crossroads, the choice they make is informed by the choice you would make."

Bronx-born and -raised—his father was in the hosiery business—Price was the first member of his family to go to college. By then he knew he wanted to be a writer, but "the point of college is to get a job, and to say you want to be a writer is a little like mocking your parents." He took his undergraduate degree in labor relations, and although he went on to graduate school to study writing, he's never betrayed his sense of where he comes from. The Lower East Side, historically the stepping–off point for generations of immigrant families, is his ancestral stomping ground, so it's no accident that "Lush Life" marks the first time that this celebrated urban novelist has used a real place and not a composite as the setting for one of his books. "I've been coming down here all my life," he says, "and my generation was the last to have living contact with the Jacob Riis era. What got me when I came down [in the last four or five years] was the irony of the arrivistes coming in. A lot of immigrant stock, they grew up in Westchester or Long Island or Minnesota or wherever, and they might or might not have even a marginal notion that this is where the family started out. They're buying a gelato 20 feet from where their grandfather was arrested for mugging somebody in 1915. So there are a lot of ghosts. This is the world's most active ghost town."

"Lush Life" is a beautiful novel that gets in your face and under your skin. Tough minded and tender, often in the same paragraph, it is very much a city boy's tale, a book-length and ultimately very heartfelt love letter to a dangerous, beguiling place. It is Richard Price's way of asking, "You want a piece of me?" Believe it, you'd be crazy to say no.

East Side Story | Culture