There’s something Dostoevskian about Richard Price’s writing for his way of ensnaring a whole atmosphere and richly turning it into an authentic aesthetic environment. He captures Lower East Side New York just as Dostoevsky does for St. Petersburg, with a full set of tensions and passions, blazing and smoldering, all full of life. And while Price lacks Dostoevsky’s all-too-Russian tendency to throw prose economy out the window, the effect is just the same: this writing may floor you, and you might not want it to end.
The plot centers on the shooting of bartender Ike Marcus and the investigation of restaurant manager Eric Cash. Ike is a twenty-something writer-to-be/waiter whose artistic and cultural ambition comes off as doggedly annoying to Cash, who is Ike 10 years crustier and later, struggling to accept the denouement of his writing career, which --- as for so many young, hip, New York pseudo-literati --- failed before it began. As the investigation trudges on, Price uproots the political and socio-economic history and tensions of the neighborhood, and expands his lens to include an impressive and exciting array of characters and subplots.
There are three characteristics in LUSH LIFE that make it an amazing accomplishment. The first, it goes without saying, is the dialogue, which may be the best you’ve ever read or heard. If one has heard anything about Price, it’s his virtuosic capacity for dialogue. Cops, hipsters, recovering hipsters, ethnic populations and every other supporting cast member sound crystal clear, saying just as much with the style of their speech as their content.
The second is his flair for tension. On the most basic level, the neighborhood is experiencing the clash of young, white gentrification, which seeks to push out the local ethnic communities enough to feel safe at night but not so much as to feel like midtown (though for some that may not be far enough). This modern arrangement sharply clashes with the Jewish-tenement history of the area (one man has converted a de-sanctified synagogue into his house --- but has another house for sleeping in). The hipsters are at war with themselves in an arms race for authenticity, which only pantomimes their fakery.
On a formal level, Price uses many of the alluring conventions of typical crime fiction, complete with a male-female cop duo that is actually original and interesting, while resisting the pull of trite genre fiction. And on a more individual scale, the lush characters of this novel are full of interpersonal tensions, and most of them are conflicted souls themselves. Price shows both sides of these stories but is more or less unforgiving as he paints few truly admirable characters and fewer heroes. But this isn’t take-no-prisoners vigilante writing. There is a supple humanity in each of these souls, and while there is little heroism here, there’s also little villainy.
Price’s third gift is his ability to construct a city in letters. When reading LUSH LIFE, one feels transported into the thick of the Lower East Side’s ugliness and beauty. This novel is endlessly expansive, and for every major plot line, there is enough character complexity and hidden narratives that demand one turns back and explores the side streets. A third of the way through, the more poetic writing slips away, but before disappointment sets in, this plot sculpted into a whole world invites the reader into its clutches. Good luck letting go; you may not wish to.
The appeal of this book is the appeal of New York itself: its beauty, its ugliness, the beauty from that ugliness, the constant change and destruction, overturning of the present that conjures ghosts from the past. Price says it best: “what really drew him to the area wasn’t its full-circle irony but its nowness, its right here and nowness, which spoke to the true engine of his being, a craving for it made many times worse by a complete ignorance of how this ‘it’ would manifest itself.” LUSH LIFE destroys temporality, meshing past, present and the hopes and fears of the future. In doing so, it stretches into an infinite complexity that vibrantly photographs the landscape of our contemporary urban cultural consciousness.
Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on January 7, 2011
- Publication Date: March 4, 2008
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 464 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- ISBN-10: 0374299250
- ISBN-13: 9780374299255