Friday, 27 November 2009


With Lush Life, Richard Price returns to New York, taking the tunnel back to the Lower East Side after setting his previous trilogy in the fictional Dempsy, New Jersey, just across the river. It's a move that seems to reflect Price's work on The Wire, not so much because his Jersey city couldn't provide him with the urban backdrop that Baltimore does in the world's greatest TV series, but because Lush Life concerns a character who would be a bit player, mostly excluded from most of the Wire's five series arcs: the bar manager Eric Cash, 35 and looking at a dead-end future among the latest influx of yuppies and young artistic types moving from trendy spot to trendy spot in the upwardly-mobile neighbourhoods of Lower Manhattan.

Cash is like a bit player from the The Wire elevated into the main role. Not a bartender in the kind of places McNulty and Bunk drink, nor the ones the politicians or teachers or dock workers of that series did their drinking either. He is also a recognisable figure from Price's earlier work, the sensitive kid who's not a genius and not inspired and always about to be subsumed into the neighbourhood he can never escape. He was there in The Wanderers, Price's bravura first novel, and now, he's somewhat desperate.

Cash is walking home late with one of his bartenders, Ike, who's everything Cash was 15 years earlier. Especially optimistic. They are dragging along Ike's shit-faced friend when they are confronted by two muggers, one of whom has a gun. When Ike resists, he gets shot; the friend is dropped unconscious to the ground and Cash has fled to the safety of a nearby building. When the police arrive, the embarrassed Cash's story doesn't seem to hold up with other witness reports, and he becomes their main suspect.

What Price does in Lush Life is play with urban misdirection. The key to success, it seems, is knowing what it is you want, where you are going. But the city exits to confuse you, and what happens when you are wrong, when you can't trust your instincts? When you're a detective like Matty Clark, being right isn't enough, and being wrong is dangerous. Clark, cut off completely from his sons upstate, drawn to the wife of the murder victim's father, is the reflection of Cash in a cracked mirror; what he might have been had he not had the illusory options of acting, or writing, or indeed small-time drug dealing. When Clark's instincts fail him about Cash, the case spins dangerously out of control, and the politics of the police nearly defeat him. Price writes his cops very well, something that made The Wire so effective, but there is a deeper comparison here, because easy as it is to see Clark and Cash as two sides of a coin, the other side of the Cash coin could just as easily be Price himself, the Price reflected in those earlier novels.

There is one last comparison with The Wire, whose structure, within each series, was echoed in each of the books of Price's Jersey trilogy. It's an old-fashioned, Dickensian structure, and in Lush Life Price has turned back to a more modern, driven narrative. Although he draws his characters from the projects as well as his cops, they become the bit players in this. But even the bit players resonate; in fact, the only characters who remain thin are the yuppies, tourists in Price's world as much as they are in New York. Which makes the cover contrast interesting; the Bloomsbury paperback, illustrated above, could well be a still from The Wire, where the original US cover (right) actually sells the hip downtown scene, as if it were one of Price's earlier novels.

Lush Life's promises of redemption, in the Philippines or Atlantic City, are presented as illusory. The reality is the city, which, as much as anything, is Price's most sharply drawn, compelling, and dangerous character.

Lush Life by Richard Price
Bloomsbury, £7.99 ISBN 9780747596776


John McFetridge said...

Good review. I really liked Lush Life.

I hope it gets people to take another look at Samaritan and Freedomland, both excellent books s well.

William Peck said...

Mike, I was wondering if you've read Clockers and if so what you thought of it?