“Price is a builder, a drafter of vast blueprints, and though the Masonic keystone of his novel [Lush Life] is a box-shaped N.Y.P.D. office, he stacks whole slabs of city on top of it and excavates colossal spaces beneath it. He doesn’t just present a slice of life, he piles life high and deep. Time too. The past is rendered mostly as an absence, though, as a set of caverns, a hive of catacombs. Some of his characters’ ancestors are down there, but the main way we know this is through the hollowness of the new neighborhood built over their crypts.” —Walter Kirn
Richard Price’s latest novel, Lush Life, reads like the best Law & Order episode you’ve ever seen, drawn out over the length of a novel and deepened by the time, space, and thoughtfulness of the form. Lauded for his impeccable dialogue, seamless storytelling and crackerjack wit, Price works like a detective: watching, listening, and recording carefully, at a distance, the stories of a city.
Born and raised in the Bronx Parkside Projects, his experiences there served as the source of his writing, even after six Ivy League years at Cornell University and in Columbia University’s M.F.A. program in fiction. Price’s first book, The Wanderers (1974), was published when he was twenty-four; it was followed by three mostly autobiographical novels set in the fictional city of Dempsy, New Jersey. To gather ideas he hung out with a lot of cops, practicing what Michael Chabon called “a funky, Seventies brand of street-level reportage” that resulted in “a mastery of interior portraiture, of the Tolstoyan free indirect style.” But these four books drained Price in a way that he couldn’t have predicted. “I was so fucking bored,” he said in an interview, lamenting that he had nothing left to write about except what he had for breakfast.
He turned to Hollywood, writing two award-winning movies, The Color of Money and Sea of Love, and picking up a “pedestrian, ‘80s-style cocaine habit.” When he kicked the cocaine, Price returned to New York and taught writing to former crack-addict kids at a rehab center in the Bronx. That material made its way into the novel Samaritan (2003), about a Hollywood television writer who returns home to teach in a city school. But the movie work granted him an unexpected perk: regular people knew him—they’d heard of his films—and the detectives who were hesitant to let him hang around in the ‘70s were suddenly chummy, hoping for a bit part in Price’s next film.
The cops let him follow them around until he had a story: a crime across social strata, across economic lines, across politics and money. Clockers (1992), later adapted into the 1995 movie directed by Spike Lee, became the basis for the hit TV show The Wire, for which Price also wrote. Literarily, he says, “I like crime as a backbone,” for the way “an investigation will take you through a landscape.” David Ulin, for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, put it this way: “For Price, 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.”
Now alternating between screenplays and novels, Price’s latest book, Lush Life, is a first-rate crime procedural set in New York City’s Lower East Side. The neighborhood itself is the main character of the book, a place where Price’s grandparents got their start, where the landscape is in a state of constant change. He’s been criticized for writing about lives he hasn’t lived, for writing about races he isn’t or people whom he can’t pretend to know. To that he says, “The job of the novelist—or any creative writer—is to imagine lives that are not your own. And nothing is off-limits.”
Excerpt from Lush Life (2008)
The next morning, giving his back to the rumple and clutter left behind by his departed sons, Matty stood hunched over the railing of his AstroTurfed seventeenth-floor terrace, coffee cup in hand, and looked down on the neighboring streets to the west, an aerial checkerboard of demolition and rehabilitation, seemingly no lot, no tenement untouched; then looked south to the financial district, to the absence of the Towers. He always imagined the slick obsidian office building that as of last year dominated the view as embarrassed, like someone exposed by an abruptly yanked shower curtain.
He felt mildly embarrassed himself, for avoiding his sons again, for sleeping in the bunk room. At least it was just that one night; Jimmy Iacone, unable to get it together after his separation, and preferring to spend his disposable income in Ludlow Street bars, had been straight-up living in that windowless hamper for the last six months.
Matty’s piano-legged neighbor stepped out onto the adjoining terrace and, ignoring him, started beating a throw rug like an intractable child. Hers was the only Orthodox family in the building willing to use the self-starting shabbos elevator as opposed to walking up the stairs from Friday sundown through Saturday, and therefore the only Orthodox family willing or able to live above the sixth floor. But they had only a two-bedroom and she was pregnant again, the third time in five years, so they’d probably be moving soon, selling for at least half a million, most likely to some young Wall Street couple who liked the idea of walking to work. Each December you could track the increase in Gentile couples living in this formerly all-Jewish enclave simply by counting the new Christmas-light-trimmed terraces along the twenty-story building front last year’s influx finally enough to vote in a seven-foot Scotch pine in the lobby next to the perennial Hanukkah menorah.
Lush Life (2008)
The Breaks (1993)
Ladies’ Man (1978)
The Wanderers (1974)
Teleplays and Screenplays
The Wire (5 episodes: “All Due Respect,” Season 3, 2004; “Moral Midgetry,” Season 3, 2004; “Home Rooms,” Season 4*, 2006; “Corner Boys,” Season 4, 2006; “Took,” Season 5, 2008). *All writers for Season 4 received Edgar Awards.
Life Lessons (1989)
Sea of Love (1989)
The Color of Money (1986) (nominated for an Oscar)
Richard Price interview
Richard Price bibliography