Novelist Richard Price is also a successful screenwriter, counting such films as The Color of Money, Sea of Love and the HBO show "The Wire" among his credits, so it is not surprising that his books are heavy on snappy, streetwise dialogue. His latest, Lush Life, is no exception. Set on the Lower East Side of New York, it is a sprawling social narrative cloaked in the guise of a crime novel, and laid down with rat-a-tat verbal precision. As in a screenplay, Price expertly crosscuts scenes, building the narrative in long or short bursts of visual and emotional intensity, and it is easy to imagine the film that Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee might make from this book.
The drama of Lush Life resides at the crowded intersection where incongruent downtown elements meet - cops and criminals, faded hipsters and young aspirants, flash real estate developers and the Chinese, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Jewish tenants they are impatient to displace. This is a world where crumbling tenements and urine-reeking public housing stand cheek by jowl with pricy restaurants, renovated clubs and new corporate high rises.
The crime that sets the plot in motion is just an ordinary street robbery gone bad. Two teenage gangstas hold up three inebriated white guys, and when one of the white guys foolishly puts up resistance, he is gunned down. The 20-something victim, Ike Marcus, was a well-liked aspiring writer, supporting himself as a bartender. One of his companions, Eric Cash, the manager of the restaurant where Ike worked, barely knew the dead man, but his behavior at the scene of the crime, along with the faulty testimony of some eyewitnesses, raise the suspicions of the police. They bring Eric in for some tough questioning, and when they don't like his attitude or answers, they book him. But when the flimsy case the cops have against him falls apart, Eric is released. He then turns into an uncooperative, even hostile, witness, complicating the job of solving Ike's murder.
Lush Life is built on a triumvirate of protagonists - Eric, Matty, the police detective, and Billy Marcus, the distraught father of the victim. At 35, Eric has just recently come to terms with the fact that he is never going to make it as an actor or screenwriter, but his resulting self-loathing and contempt for anyone with dreams is palpable. The crime is the last straw, and he starts skimming more heavily from the tip pool at the restaurant, his sights set on leaving the bogus Manhattan life behind for good. Divorced and suitably cynical, Matty is wedded to his job. Though he has no delusions about the way the system works, he nonetheless is mortified to discover that his own sons - one of them a cop - are pushing drugs upstate. Billy, thrust into the nightmare of his son's death, becomes the walking wounded, wandering, quite literally, between rage, disorientation and guilt. Brought together by the killing and its aftermath, each of these three men undergoes his individual journey into the heart of darkness.
The mean streets Price leads us down have been well traveled in books, films and on television, but he skillfully sidesteps the clich∧#233;s that so often abound in this kind of material. A big novel (and to be honest, Price might have tightened things up a bit), Lush Life has plenty of room for dozens of beautifully delineated ancillary characters - from the sharp-tongued but compassionate policewoman to the Israeli rabble rouser to the apparent murderer himself. In Price's world, no one is without guilt, yet everyone has understandable reasons for making the choices he or she makes, and even the most fleeting walk-on is given a quickly fleshed-out backstory.
With its cinematic grit, Lush Life is almost anti-literary in its posture, yet somehow that makes Price's literary achievement all the more impressive. The novel has a tough, one could say distinctly New York, point of view. Yet even for readers for whom the Lower East Side of Manhattan - where a band of cops called the Quality of Life Task Force culls the streets and the Virgin Mary can appear in the condensation on the door to the beer cooler in a Yemeni-run convenience store - is as foreign a place as, say, Baghdad, it still speaks directly to the universality of human desire and disappointment.
Robert Weibezahl is the author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.