With supplies of The Wire fast dwindling, fans looking for their next fix of gritty, multilayered urban sagas need look no further than the outstanding new novel by series writer Richard Price, who has been dramatizing the intricate tango of cops and drug peddlers in thrilling, soulful fiction since long before anyone ever heard of Marlo Stanfield.
Lush Life, Price’s eighth book, pivots on the fallout from a single, unpremeditated murder early one morning on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, depicted here as a crazy nexus of arrogant white hipsters, desperate Chinese immigrants, and predatory African-American and Puerto Rican dealers, all of them jostling to build their lives amid decrepit knisheries and the ruins of 19th-century synagogues.
Twentysomething Ike Marcus, an aspiring poet who exudes the naive self-confidence of a well-loved middle-class kid, is stumbling home with two drinking buddies when someone pulls out a .22 and shoots him dead. (Like a number of the white characters in the book, Ike treats the troubled neighborhood as a round-the-clock playground.) His school friend, Steven Boulware (aspiring actor), is too blitzed to talk to the cops. Ike’s other companion, Eric Cash (aspiring screenwriter), claims that Ike was mugged and killed by a couple of young men: ”Black and/or Hispanic, one guy a little lighter than the other, but I don’t know for sure.” His story changes by the minute, and when two eyewitnesses finger him for the shooting, detective Matty Clark reluctantly zeroes in on Cash as the prime suspect.
The novel starts off as a taut, nervy whodunit, but even after Price reveals who pulled the trigger — about 150 pages in — the tension only escalates. All of the players hover on the brink of cataclysmic change: psychic collapse, a life-altering love affair, a homicidal outburst. Price moves deftly among his characters, and it is never clear who stands at the emotional center of the story. It could be existentially troubled Cash, 35 years old and increasingly unable to sustain the illusion that he manages a trendy restaurant (and steals from the tip pool) to support his art. It could be Clark, who finds himself falling for Ike’s grieving middle-aged stepmother while simultaneously conducting a joyless affair with the nubile ”mixologist” at a pretentious downtown bar. Or it could be Tristan, a woefully abused kid from one of the local public housing projects (”the PJs”), who has a gift for rap poetry and a boulder-size chip on his shoulder. In fact, this big, powerful novel belongs to all of them, and, like The Wire, its real protagonist is the complicated, tragic, and endlessly fascinating American city street. A