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East Side story

Lush Life A Novel ; Richard Price ; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 456 pp., $26

March 02, 2008|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

IN the early 1990s, Richard Price made a decision to change direction in his work. Until then, he'd been an atmospheric urban novelist, the author of, among other titles, "The Wanderers," a Bronx-based coming-of-age novel set in the early 1960s, and "Ladies' Man," about a week in the life of a door-to-door salesman who's looking for love. These are self-contained books, small and character-driven, reminiscent in places of the gritty realism of Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Last Exit to Brooklyn." (Selby, indeed, reviewed "The Wanderers" for the New York Times Book Review.)

Price, however, was looking to do something different, to break out, to write a novel on a grand scale. The result was "Clockers," a 600-plus-page epic about a crack dealer and a homicide cop, set in the projects of a city closely resembling Newark, N.J. Sprawling, kaleidoscopic, marked by an intuitive understanding of the city as an elaborately constructed landscape, "Clockers" pushed the parameters of Price's fiction, expanding on the vision of his earlier books in favor of something not unlike the social novel of the 18th and 19th centuries. In that sense, although his material was utterly contemporary, the dynamic of Price's narrative -- its sense of milieu, of scope, of what it means to live at a particular moment -- made for an odd sort of throwback: "Crime and Punishment" meets "Vanity Fair."

Price, of course, was not the only writer to look ahead by looking backward, to rethink the idea of the social novel in a culture that seemed to have passed it by. In 1989, Tom Wolfe published a manifesto in Harper's agitating for a more expansive approach to fiction; his own first novel, "The Bonfire of the Vanities" (the title a nod to "Vanity Fair"), was an illustration of these principles -- or so he implied. Seven years later, Jonathan Franzen made a related argument in another Harper's essay, writing, "I mourn the retreat into the Self and the decline of the broad-canvas novel for the same reason I mourn the rise of suburbs: I like maximum diversity and contrast packed into a single exciting experience."

Franzen saw the beauty of the social novel in its wide-angled cross-section of lifestyles and characters, each trying to forge a passage through the world. The same could be said of Price's later fiction, including "Freedomland," which begins with a carjacking and kidnapping that precipitates an urban breakdown, and "Samaritan," about a man who is beaten nearly to death but refuses to press charges, preferring to remain outside the law. For Price, then, the social novel is also a crime novel, or maybe it's just that in the intersection between criminality and citizenship we get our truest sense of what the city means.

Price's eighth novel, "Lush Life," represents a further exploration of this notion. It takes place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is -- as it has always been -- a crucible of urban change. Here we find a New York panoply, from the community's longtime Chinese and Hispanic underclass to the artists and trendoids (largely white and moneyed) who have gentrified the area. Not unlike "Freedomland," the book begins with a crime that seems simple but unravels into unforeseen complications; like "Samaritan," it involves the uneasy push-and-pull between telling and not telling, between the demands of the individual and those of society at large.

At the center of the action is Eric Cash, a 35-year-old manager at a fashionable neighborhood eatery named Berkmann's and one of those not-quite figures you find in hipper parts of cities: a not-quite-actor, a not-quite-writer, a not-quite-adult not quite comfortable with the idea that he will never fulfill his dreams. Then, one night, on the way home from a pub crawl, Eric watches as his co-worker Ike Marcus gets gunned down in an attempted robbery. Eric is arrested for the crime, although he's quickly released when another witness backs up his version of events. The experience, however, does something to him, and as the novel progresses he retreats into a shadow territory of his own creation, in which everything he thought he knew is all of a sudden rendered "incomprehensible, as meaningless and blithery as whatever was coming out of the television; what the world needs not."

This is a vivid setup -- cinematic, even, which is hardly a surprise. In addition to his novels, Price has written a number of screenplays, including "The Color of Money" and "Night and the City," and he now writes for HBO's "The Wire." In "Lush Life" (as in "Clockers," "Freedomland" and "Samaritan" before it), he brings that experience to the page, creating a story that ripples with tension, marked by jump cuts, parallel narratives and razor-sharp dialogue.

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