I love it when a plan comes together. And by plan, I mean accident. I'd been wanting to find a book to read while we were in New York. I like to have something at the side of the bed so that, after a days exploring, I can key into an authors work and let that story become part of the memory. I also like to pick up local crime fiction books wherever I go, because they're far better than tourist guides or travel maps. They let you get to know a place.
The trouble with New York was that I'd already read all the books that I came across, and it was looking like it would be a wash out. Then our new friend, Josh, took us on a walking tour of the lower east, showing us the city in a way we wouldn't have seen it otherwise, and over into Brooklyn.
As we explored, we came upon a street stall selling second hand books. And there was a wonderful QP edition of LUSH LIFE, by Richard Price. It was a story set in the very neighbourhood we had just explored. Flicking through the opening pages I saw mention of Katz's Deli and, ho shit, I'd been standing outside that just a couple of hours before. This felt like a book that was somehow real to me, even if it was in some shallow tourist way.
The story in some ways reminded me of Lawrence Block's SMALL TOWN. Though it took me a while to figure out why, because they have little in common. I figured it out only this week, as i sat to try and write about LUSH LIFE. Block had written his story as a love letter of sorts to New York. An epic twisted tale of a serial killer and the many lives he touched, SMALL TOWN drew a lot of controversy when it was released. It dealt in a very different social sphere to LUSH LIFE, Blocks book dealt with art dealers, writers and politicians. But through the book he showed how every life in New York can overlap, in some way, even for a second. He showed that it was a major city, but "a small town when it rains."
LUSH LIFE exists in the modern lower east side. It shows us a world that has as many different cultures thrown into a few small streets as you could possibly get, and none of the choose to interact. Each culture stick to its own, and the all do their best to ignore the hip kids, the wandering students and wannabes that have come to belong there as much as anyone else.
Each of these lives can co-exist without ever running afoul of each other, without ever knowing each other, until two of them rub together for a brief moment. Two young black kids from the projects cross paths with three drunks from the hipster scene. There is a gun shot, and then the lower east becomes a very small town.
The spine of the story is the Police investigation into the crime, with the two central cops acting as tour guides for us through all the different lives and cultures that are touched upon. Built around this investigation are the lives of people like Eric Cash, who came to the city as a hot young thing and now realises that there is no pot of gold, that this is his life. There is Ike Marcus, a hot young thing who looks to be spared the years of heart break that Eric has lived through, and Tristan, a young projects kid with no chances to escape a life he didn't choose.
The book is brilliant. It's a tale of race, politics, love, loss and desperation. If you can't find what you're after in this book, then you're not looking hard enough.
But forget all of that for a moment. All of it. You know what really makes this book work? What really gives it soul?
For all that crime fiction deals with poverty, death and violence, it seems to shy away from dealing with grief. It piles on the guilt, sure, but not the grief. I can count on one hand the authors who really tackle this head on in any meaningful way. Reed Farrel Coleman does it, our very own Russel D McLean does it, but it's a pretty short list beyond that.
With LUSH LIFE, Richard Price takes a long hard look at grief. He shows us a father who falls apart at the loss of his son, who will spend the rest of his life waiting for the moment his son walks down the driveway and says it was all a joke. We see a cop grieving for a family life he managed to lose, and Eric Cash mourning a life that he'll never have. We see the way some people can twist it, use it for their own benefit, while others can becomes trapped and defined by it, never to escape. The emotion hands over the book, pulling it up above all the competition.
So, Richard Price I guess i should apologise. I bough this book second hand. On the flip side sir, you've written a fucking amazing book.
I became aware of Price from watching THE WIRE. I've since read FREEDOMLAND and CLOCKERS. He's brilliant.
A great compliment and well delivered, Jay. The man deserves all the plaudits. I remember reading somewhere last summer that Lush Life was on Pres. Obama's holiday reading list.
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