Lush Life reads like a giant, sprawling episode of
your favorite fast-talking police procedural, with type breaks and metaphors
standing in for jump cuts and sweeping crane-mounted pans across the city
skyline. Much more in line with The Wire (for which Richard Price wrote
several episodes) than Law and Order, Price is obviously concerned with
deeper ideas about the nature of the city, gentrification, and the
intersections of race and class, and Lush Life both succeeds and suffers
for it. Many readers will come to this novel wanting Price to walk a fine line,
hoping to find either a masterful work of crime fiction that transcends the
genre or a finely crafted novel shot through with a thrilling dose of crime
drama. Despite all the rave reviews in major publications, I can't help thinking
that readers from both camps are going to be disappointed. I know there are
readers out there who will embrace Lush Life for its powerhouse writing
and insider's vision, but I suspect there are just as many who will be left as
unmoved and confused as I was by the heaps of praise laid at its doorstep.
Lush Life is driven by its dialogue - sharp, jargon-laden, street-smart patter that could easily serve as a script for the next HBO crime drama, and it's what will propel and sustain fans of this book. Critics seem to be in near-universal agreement with Michiko Kakutani's assertion that "no one writes better dialogue than Richard Price" (New York Times), but the rest of the sentence is key to understanding the claim: "not Elmore Leonard, not David Mamet, not even David Chase". Not Elmore Leonard, who must have one of the highest books-to-movie conversion rates of contemporary writers, not David Mamet, known primarily for the exacting dialogue of his plays and screenplays, not David Chase the creator and head writer of The Sopranos. The point is, we're talking screens here, not books. In a culture that increasingly identifies television with reality, maybe the most universally appreciated dialogue is that which most closely meshes with what we watch on the screen. And if those are the scales, then Price is certainly a heavyweight in the dialogue ring. But are these the measures by which we weigh success in a novel? To me, most of the copious passages of dialogue in Lush Life stand out as too fast, too slick, jammed with far too much clumsy back-story in short, too TV. Almost all of the dialogue is exchanged between cops, witnesses, and hoodlums, and so it makes sense that Price's dialogue would seem realistic most of us have no other frame of reference for such exchanges outside of the one created for us by screenwriters. And while Price's dialogue may excite with its "realism", it fails to shape his characters beyond a two-dimensional treatment. The thirty-something sad-sack actor/waiter/suspect/witness, the stout, balding Irish cop with a miserable family life, his tough Latina partner with a heart of gold, the gun-toting teens in baggy jeans all fail to take more than vague, generic shapes, as if waiting for actors to step in and take over.
New York City is as much a character as any other in this novel, and this is where Price really shines. He can sketch the urban landscape in a few deft strokes, his in-the-know references and jam-packed compound adjectives giving his sentences authority and power.
"Eric... turned to face the Eighth Precinct station house, an octagonal Lindsay-era, siege-mentality fortress set down on razed lung-block acreage like a spiked fist aimed a the surrounding projects..."
Part of the sad joke of the entire novel is the clumsy confluence of history and the buoyant gentrification that fails to appreciate it, and nowhere are Price's observations more spot-on.
"He was an upstate Jew five generations removed from here, but he knew where he was, he got the joke; the laboratorio del gelati, the Tibetan hat boutiques, 88 Forsyth House with its historically restored cold-water flats not all that much different from the unrestored tenements that surrounded it, and in his capacity as manager of Cafe Berkman, the flagship of the come-on-down, on the rare days when the Beast would take one of its catnaps, he enjoyed being part of the punch line."
But these handfuls of dazzling prose drown in the proliferation of thick,
meandering, third-person passages that dominate the remainder of the
narration, and with them perishes the gripping "whodunit" thread promised by the
novel's opening pages. The shreds of suspense that we're expected to hold onto
get lost in shallow digressions into various character's lives, and the novel
begins to feel truly messy around halfway through. By page 300 I no longer cared
about what happened to anybody. The thrill ride I was hoping for turned into an
endless tour bus, and I'd already given up on transcendence after the first
chapter. It would be wrong (and impossible) to read Lush Life as a
simple-thrills whodunit, but it also fails as the more ambitious novel it
aspires to be. The big ideas Price tries to build with gentrification and the
soul of the city it attempts to hide, middle-class "artists" with visions
of grandeur, impoverished kids climbing their way out of invisibility with
violence overwhelm such a tenuous treatment, and the book trembles under their
Perhaps if I owned a television like most Americans, I would be more convinced of Lush Life's claim on realism. But I'm first and foremost a reader, and I like the version of reality shaped by fiction on the page, writing that succeeds because its aim is to evoke, not mimic. Perhaps if I read fewer good books I would be more impressed with Price's gritty prose, but to my mind, his considerable talents as an observer and wordsmith deserve a more ruthless editor. But then, I suppose, one might be left with just over 100 pages. Which is, by the way, the length of a typical screenplay.
This review was originally published in April 2008, and has been updated for the March 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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