Suicide by Mouth

Deborah Friedell

  • Lush Life by Richard Price
    Bloomsbury, 455 pp, £12.99, August 2008, ISBN 978 0 7475 9601 1

A cop has taken his wife to the movies to see something gentle by Ron Howard, but it finishes at the same time as Batman and Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 62, and as the three audiences collide, the cop finds himself surrounded by young entry-level drug dealers (runners, lookouts, bagmen), ‘every goddam kid I ever strip-searched, busted, smacked upside the head’. This is it, he thinks, death by multiplex. But the dealers couldn’t be nicer. They’re delighted to see him, thrilled to meet his wife. These children don’t go to school, and this is as close as they’ll get to the joy of seeing the teacher in the grocery store, with no more authority than anyone else.

Richard Price wrote the scene for his novel Clockers, and reused it in an episode of the television show The Wire. It’s fine as written, but better on TV, with everything expressed by the quiet way one of the dealers asks, ‘Y’all go to the movies?’ and the stiffness of the two narcotics detectives, who say nothing and don’t let go of their girlfriends’ hands. It’s a subtler moment than it is in the book, and more affecting. If good writing means showing, not telling, how can a novelist compete with HBO? A television show can spend a hundred hours on the study of one man, his family, his colleagues, his psychiatrist, with space for digression and nuance: ‘The Sopranos isn’t Shakespeare, but it is Balzac,’ said Leon Wieseltier. Box sets of DVDs ape the look of a book with their pages of discs, and are designed to fit on bookshelves. In London, in New York, when young literary things meet, book chat is gossip. The smart conversations, the ones they’ve trained for, are about TV.

Price has spent his career alternating books with film projects, and in interviews has often talked about the difficulty of doing both: ‘If you try to do both simultaneously, you are going to bring bad habits with you. So it’s like trying to play baseball and softball. It seems deceptively dissimilar [sic]. You are going to break something.’ It’s true that Price’s novels can owe too much to the habits of the screenwriter, in their pacing and in their over-reliance on dialogue. But writing for the screen also seems to have given him the enthusiasm of an outsider: his novels delight in being novels. Book by book, his figurative language has grown increasingly ornate, his similes frequent and exuberant, if not always successful. (A friend said she nearly stopped reading Price’s new novel, Lush Life, when she came to the sentence: ‘He always imagined the slick obsidian office building that as of last year dominated the view as embarrassed, like someone exposed by an abruptly yanked shower curtain.’) But what makes the books novels – not just screenplays unable to get financing – is the access Price gives to characters who fiercely protect their inner voices, and who behave in terrifying, seemingly inexplicable ways. Most of his novels have been adapted for the screen, and what they lose in translation is often what makes them most valuable.

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