Writing screenplays for Hollywood has ruined more novelists than booze, drugs, mental illness, and bad marriages combined -- or so runs the hoary cliche. You couldn't prove it by Richard Price, who, after turning out four terrific, highly acclaimed novels in the '70s and early '80s (including ''The Wanderers'' and ''Bloodbrothers''), began cranking out scripts (''The Color of Money'' and ''Mad Dog'' and ''Glory'' were his) and raking in the kind of long green most novelists only dream about.
Maybe Hollywood's not really the soul-sucking force some writers say it is: When Price returned to books with his 1992 opus ''Clockers,'' it was with his fictional batteries recharged. Abandoning the thinly veiled autobiography of 1983's ''The Breaks,'' Price plunged us headlong into the psyche of a stuttering, 19-year-old black crack dealer with an ulcer, to riveting effect. The follow-up to ''Clockers,'' 1998's ''Freedomland,'' was perhaps even more ambitious, a crackling tale of racial tension set, like its predecessor, in the fictional town of Dempsy, New Jersey. In Samaritan, Price again takes us into the heart of that bombed-out, blighted center of urban waste and desperation, to tell the story of a man who refuses to believe that old saw about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.
Ray Mitchell is an ex-teacher and former television writer who returns home to the housing projects of Dempsy, where he was raised, to regroup and reconnect with his past. His first stop is his old high school, where he begins teaching a creative writing class, gratis. Like most Price protagonists, Ray is a streetwise, painfully self-aware outsider who uses his verbal skills to keep the world -- and his demons -- at bay (like Price, he's an ex-drug addict).
Early in the story, Ray lands in the hospital, the victim of a particularly savage beating that he stubbornly refuses to talk about, despite the persistent efforts of Det. Nerese Ammons, an African-American woman he has known since childhood. The central question, of course, is Whodunit? As the novel vaults back and forth in time, we are introduced to potential suspects: Ray's former student Salim El-Amin, a jumpy ex-con whose dreams of being a T-shirt entrepreneur our hero bankrolls; Carla Powell, a haggard denizen of the projects whose son's funeral Ray pays for; Carla's daughter, Danielle, with whom Ray begins an ill-advised love affair; and Danielle's jailbird husband, Freddy Martinez.
''Samaritan'' is a supremely suspenseful novel (with a denouement that will leave you marveling at how artfully the author kept us from guessing the perpetrator's identity), but to call it a thriller would be selling it short. Part police procedural, part high-wire psychodrama, part social study, it's a wholly engrossing hybrid that packs an emotional wallop every bit as powerful as, say, Hubert Selby Jr.'s ''Last Exit to Brooklyn'' (a book that's something of a personal touchstone for Price).
One major character here isn't even a sentient being -- the Dempsy projects, which Price, himself a scion of a Bronx housing project, brings to visceral life. A lesser writer might be content with conjuring graffiti-stained stairwells or elevators that reek of urine, but Price's understanding of this particularly complex urban milieu, with its combustible mix of poverty, crime, and everyday hardworking folks, is suffused with empathy and tenderness.
The author's forte has always been characterization, and ''Samaritan'' can be read by aspiring writers as a note-perfect example of how to make fictional characters jump off the page. His talent for transporting readers into the skins of the people he writes about makes for vivid, occasionally uncomfortable reading. Even relatively minor players -- an ex-junkie named White Tom Potenza, a juicehead cop named Pete Heinz -- are rendered so compellingly you feel you know them.
Price has said that before he became a writer, he was an amateur mimic who delighted in doing impersonations. It's a skill that continues to serve him well. His adeptness at capturing real-life speech patterns on the printed page is uncanny, and reinforces ''Samaritan'''s aura of gritty urban realism at every stage. The book's putative moral may be that giving too much is dangerous, but thankfully, Price has opted to just go ahead and give us a pure gift anyway.