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.

Price’s first several novels were, by his own admission, painfully autobiographical stories about sensitive boys, alienated, aimless, usually living in or having grown up in housing projects in the Bronx, thwarted in love, tempted by drugs, with vague artistic sensibilities. One of the books, The Wanderers, found cult status among teenage boys of all ages. But nothing seems to happen: you wait in vain for them to get started. And then Price discovered the police procedural; his next novels, Clockers (1993), Freedomland (1999), Samaritan (2003) and now Lush Life, follow a crime from discovery to revelation, with chapters alternating between the investigators and the investigated. Price has denied being a mystery writer, insisting, instead, that the ‘investigation into a crime from the moment it occurs through all of the interviews and legwork to whatever conclusion is arrived upon, is a great spine to investigate anything you want to about human nature.’ Or to put it another way, the opening description of a playground in Samaritan – ‘the yellow glow of sodium lights, looking out over the pristine crust under which, half-buried, were geodesic monkey bars, two concrete crawl-through barrels and three cement seals, only their snouts and eyes visible above the snow line, as if they were truly at sea’ – is more forgivable if there’s going to be a body.

Price is working in a genre, but at a slant. The culprits are revealed early in the novel, or the crime is so clearly based on a famous case that the solution is obvious. One of the wonderful things about Lush Life is that the police get their man, but not through any thrilling displays of deductive reasoning. They convince a teenager arrested for possession of marijuana that he’s going to be put away; they figure he’ll offer them something, at least a higher-level dealer, and he says: ‘What if I give you the shooter of that white boy?’ Freedomland, based on the case of a white woman, Susan Smith, who killed her children and blamed a black carjacker, is really a novel about race in America: ‘A black man did it, a black man did it. She knew her product and she knew her customers.’ But the thriller-ness, the cops and the chases, defused accusations that it was taking itself too seriously.

Price’s police novels had all previously been set amid the urban decay of the fictitious Dempsey, New Jersey, but a particular murder led him across the river. In January 2005, Nicole duFresne, 28, from Minnesota, recently moved to New York City with plans to become either a playwright or an actress, worked her first night as a bartender on the Lower East Side. She was walking home with her boyfriend and another couple when seven teenagers from a nearby housing project demanded her money at gunpoint. ‘What are you going to do, shoot us?’ duFresne said. She died within moments. One of the muggers, a 14-year-old girl, later told the police that the couples had been targeted not only because they were white, but because ‘they were extremely happy. So that made me even angrier.’ The case was, inevitably, a sensation, the murder almost a nostalgic reminder of a Manhattan that was supposed to have been gentrified beyond recognition. (A recent New York Times article, ‘Murder, She Once Wrote’, sympathised with the woes of Manhattan mystery writers, who feel starved for source material in an era of record-low crime rates.) In early May, Law & Order: Criminal Intent ran an episode about a pretty aspiring actress whose boyfriend claims she was shot during a Lower East Side mugging. But for network television, the slaying of a blonde by poor black kids was either too obvious or too crude. In the episode, it’s the girl’s boyfriend who did it, in the hope that the publicity would further his acting career.

The murder of Nicole duFresne seemed to have all the elements of a Price novel: the naive white people, the dangerous kids from the projects, the media storm (always for a white person, rarely for a darker one) – this was his donnée, not to be shirked. And so, in Lush Life, three white men are walking through the Lower East Side after a night of barhopping. They all grew up in the suburbs, but the joke that runs through the novel is that almost any white person can answer, ‘Originally,’ when asked: ‘Are you from here?’ (A history of the Jews in America: the Lower East Side, the Bronx, the Upper West Side, Scarsdale, a $2500 a month studio on the Lower East Side.) One of the men wants to be a screenwriter, another an actor. The third, Eric Cash, has ‘no particular talent or skill, or what was worse, he had a little talent, some skill’; he can write a little, act a little, but he’s 35, and his ‘unsatisfied yearning for validation’ makes him uncomfortable with the other two men, who are younger and still hopeful. And then, the Eloi meet the Morlocks. Eric tells the police that they were mugged by two kids, one black, the other perhaps Hispanic. Eric handed over his wallet, while Steve, the aspiring actor, passed out from drunkenness. But the third man, the screenwriter, Ike Marcus, walked up to the boy holding the gun and said, ‘Not tonight, my man,’ with by now predictable results. Among themselves, the cops pronounce it ‘suicide by mouth’.

During police questioning, Eric comes under suspicion: the cops mistake his self-loathing for guilt. In scenes told almost entirely in (often very funny) dialogue, he doesn’t help himself by being unable to disguise how much he despised the victim:

‘Sometimes it feels like everybody I know down here went to the same fucking art camp or something.’ Eyes brimming, he stared at his hands, then added as if ashamed: ‘Ike was OK.’

‘So the top-secret bar was from when to when?’ she asked.

‘We were out of there probably by eleven or so.’

‘Everybody still get along?’

‘Yeah, I guess, I think I told you they got their MFAs together something like three months ago, now Steve’s all night, “I’m not moving to LA, man, LA’s ass. New York feeds me, feeds my soul. They want me, they gotta come here. And I’m not doing any studio bullshit.” And Ike’s like: “And I’m not writing any.” Then everybody, all together now: “I’ll fucking starve first, man.”’

Lush Life reads as though it were written in anger, but the anger isn’t directed at the teenager who fires his gun. For reasons why poor people might turn to violent crime, see Clockers (still Price’s best book) or The Wire. The murderer in Lush Life is stupid and selfish; he was abused by his stepfather, failed by the system. When not sticking people up, he writes poems and takes care of his younger siblings. But for Price, it’s the carelessness of Ike Marcus (‘Not tonight, my man’), his assumption that he’s inviolable, that emerges as a besetting sin. ‘All these tattoos, what are you going to tell your kids someday?’ Eric had once asked Ike, who responded: ‘My kid? I’m my own kid.’

At Ike’s memorial service, Eric studies the other mourners:

There’s one thing, for all their differences, that the audience, and the guys who did the killing, have in common … And, it’s narcissism. The difference being, and I’m making an assumption here I realise, that the shooters are narcissistic? But their self-centredness has no real centre. They’re probably pretty much numb to themselves and everybody else, you know, except for their gut needs, and, like, impulse reactions to certain situations. But the, the, others? Us? Also narcissistic, but there’s a centre to our self-centredness, a little too much centre and not particularly attractive in most cases.

At the centre is nothing but self-regard: ‘They were the crest of the wave, young, gifted, privileged, serious for now about making art or launching some kind of maverick free enterprise or just being citizens of the world, and not only reasonably confident in their ability to do so but also in their god-given right to do so.’ By the book’s end, the narrative has turned into a screed against the rich white kids of America (their spiritual capital: the Lower East Side), in possession of all the qualities that make the rest of the world hate their country, and them so innocent, as clueless and useless as babies, no less depraved than the young thugs who kill them for their Marc Jacobs wallets. They ‘walk around starring in the movie of their lives’: Ike the screenwriter, like the would-be playwright-actress, simply failed to realise what kind of scene he was in.

Price’s police novels have always had at their heart the schooling of their white characters. In Clockers, the white cop who moonlights in a convenience store smirks at the poor black customers who buy beer one at a time, never thinking to save money by buying a six pack. His partner explains, exasperated:

Let me ask you something. You go into a bar, you sit down, you say to the bartender: ‘Give me six beers?’ … The man got no money to sit in a bar, pay bar prices, leave a tip an’ shit. See that street out there? That’s his bar. Sit on a nice stoop, watch the girls go by. An’ you the bartender. See what I’m saying?

In Samaritan, Price wrote about a white man who, having made money in Hollywood, returns to the housing project where he grew up, now entirely populated by destitute black people. It is, Price has said, his most autobiographical novel, full of the guilt and ambivalence he experienced when he, too, left the projects and made it in LaLaLand. In the novel, Ray helps a tenant pay for her son’s burial, volunteers at the middle school, invests start-up cash in a small business, and for his trouble one of the boys he’d tried to help puts him in a coma. But Ray, we’re told, had it coming. His motives were off: ‘Narcissistic, self-aggrandising – yeah, yes, guilty as charged.’ He had been kind to the boy – taking him on outings, teaching him to throw a ball, buying him books – and when Ray withdrew his friendship, the boy’s feelings were hurt. A wise black policewoman (there is always a wise black policewoman) tells Ray: ‘What did you think, that kid would just stop thinking about you after he went home like you stopped thinking about him? You reach out in any way to a child like that, you cannot be oblivious to what you might be unleashing.’ Ray’s only truly selfless act of charity, the novel suggests, is refusing to press charges. The attack has brought him ‘face to face with the narcissism that propelled so much of his largesse, alive to how it brought him to this room, this jam’. He finally accepts that his injuries are a consequence of his own egotism, that he deserves what happened to him. Price is a deft writer and you finish the novel nearly persuaded that this might be true. But there’s a difference between bearing some of the responsibility for being attacked and deserving it.