The transformation of working-class neighborhoods and derelict manufacturing zones into blocks of condos and bistros has become a familiar occurrence in many American cities over the past two decades, but perhaps nowhere has it been more noticeable than in New York City. Throughout Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, gentrification has grown so commonplace that it’s easy to overlook the strange and possibly unprecedented demographic configurations that real estate speculation has wrought in some neighborhoods. On the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Richard Price reminds us in his fine new novel, tenements of refurbished, newly expensive apartments and boutique hotels inhabited by professionals are only blocks away from tenements packed with immigrants sleeping six or twelve to a room. From the outside these buildings might look alike, and even on the inside you can see the skeletons of the same railroad apartments, but only in the immigrants’ tenements are the rooms subdivided into tiny cubicles or lined with wooden planks, “like extrawide bookshelves,” for sleeping on.
Like Price’s three most recent books–Clockers, Freedomland and Samaritan—Lush Life is part crime novel, part social realism, though perhaps “social realism” doesn’t do justice to the book’s many comic moments. The crime here is the murder of a young man on Eldridge Street, and in the course of the investigation Price takes us to all corners of the neighborhood to meet the locals. When Lush Life opens it’s 11 pm on a typical night on the Lower East Side: a smattering of Chinese immigrants are returning home from work; families–Dominican, Orthodox Jewish, Bangladeshi–are tucked away somewhere indoors; tourists and revelers in their 20s are swarming the neighborhood’s bars and clubs, soon to tumble back out into the streets, staggering drunk.
Observing all this activity is the Quality of Life Task Force of the Eighth Precinct. Quality of Life, as the group is called, is composed of four youngish policemen who drive around in a fake taxi (which doesn’t seem to fool anyone but the drunk college kids who occasionally try to hail it) looking for small-time offenses–attempted muggings, marijuana possessions–that might lead them to bigger criminals. The group’s name doesn’t have the hard-boiled luster of Homicide or Narcotics, but its beat is one of the cornerstone strategies developed by the Giuliani-era NYPD and credited with the huge drop in violent crime that has helped turn formerly shabby neighborhoods like the Lower East Side into coveted real estate. The novel takes place sometime in the mid-2000s, and, crime being down, Quality of Life is having another slow night. The cops kill time ribbing one another and egging on would-be muggers from inside the taxi as they creep around the blocks “for an hour of endless tight right turns: falafel joint, jazz joint, gyro joint, corner. Schoolyard, creperie, realtor, corner. Tenement, tenement, tenement museum, corner. Pink Pony, Blind Tiger, muffin boutique, corner. Sex shop, tea shop, synagogue, corner.”
The Lower East Side’s new commercial flavor brings out Price’s biting sense of humor. As always he’s a sharp observer of the talk, dress, manners and vanities of his characters, and here he’s also a master at concocting preposterous but somehow plausible situations that capture what’s good and bad and absurd about the neighborhood. In one early scene local Catholics, mostly Latino, line up around the block to see a shape vaguely resembling the Virgin Mary formed in the condensation on a glass refrigerator door in a mini-mart. A second crowd, this one “mostly young, white, and bemused,” forms to watch the first crowd. Meanwhile, the Yemeni brothers who own the mini-mart are charging a dollar a head to see the miracle. “Say hello to Mary,” says the brother collecting money at the door. “She loves you very much.”
The urban landscape of Lush Life is different from the one we’ve come to know in Price’s recent books, which are set in the fictional city of Dempsy, New Jersey: midsize, postindustrial, economically depressed, racially segregated. Much of their action occurs in Dempsy’s housing projects, occupied almost entirely by poor black residents who, whether they sell drugs, like the hero of Clockers, or have legal jobs, like most of the characters in Freedomland and Samaritan, seem isolated from the world outside their immediate neighborhood. Though Samaritan is set after September 11, the world of these three novels is the inner city as it came to be defined in the 1980s and early ’90s: urban ruins in the making, which their residents would presumably abandon if they could afford to live someplace less dilapidated and violent. This kind of inner-city neighborhood continues to exist, of course, in, among other places, the HBO series The Wire, which is set in Baltimore and for which Price was a screenwriter. But a neighborhood like the Lower East Side, with its eastward waves of gentrification lapping nearly to the housing projects along the East River, complicates the old idea of inner-city desolation and isolation. There are still many low-income high-rises on the Lower East Side (“immortal,” Price calls them), but they’re in breathtaking proximity to upwardly mobile newcomers from uptown and all over the world.
While Price takes in the panoply of the neighborhood, the residents who most interest him are the hipster newcomers and the kids in the projects. Just how much does proximity to new money improve the daily lives or future prospects of the residents of the projects? This is an important question in Lush Life, one that Price raises with some skepticism. At least one thing has changed in the projects over the past decade, however: as in other parts of the neighborhood, better law enforcement and new money have led to new business opportunities. Among the many characters introduced in the opening chapters are Tristan Acevedo and his friend Little Dap Williams, two young teenagers, Puerto Rican and black, respectively, from the Lemlich Houses. Little Dap explains to Tristan, ignorant of much of the neighborhood lore because he’s usually baby-sitting his three younger step-siblings, that ten or twelve years earlier the Lower East Side drug trade had been run by a few powerful kingpins. “Half a them got snatched up by RICO for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hard cores, so now it’s like just the Old Heads out there sippin’ forties and telling stories about yesteryear, them and a bunch of Similac niggers, stoop boys, everybody out for themselves with their itty-bitty eight balls, nobody runnin’ the show.”
Little Dap is keen to pursue the entrepreneurial possibilities that this free-for-all presents. He and Tristan make a plan to buy cocaine from a dealer in Washington Heights and resell it in Tompkins Square Park “to the white boys coming out the bars.” First, however, they need money for the coke, and the obvious source–the only one they seem to consider seriously–is a mugging. Muggings are routine on the Lower East Side despite Quality of Life efforts, frequent enough that Chinese immigrants have been warned by their community leaders to stop carrying the week’s earnings on them in cash. But Little Dap, who has already committed several successful holdups, prefers to go after the increasingly numerous white kids. He and Tristan find their quarry on Eldridge Street somewhere below Delancey, the crossroads of old and new Lower East Side.
The neighborhood’s history as the home of millions of poor turn-of-the-century immigrants adds a layer of irony to its sudden chic, an irony not lost on Eric Cash, a restaurant manager in his mid-30s who has been living for nearly a decade in the area that his Jewish forebears hurried to abandon for something more bucolic. Over the course of his eight years on the Lower East Side, Eric has tried acting and writing, but he’s now facing the appalling fact that his day job managing the trendy local restaurant Café Berkmann has become, simply, his job. One night a new bartender at Café Berkmann, Ike Marcus, cajoles Eric into going barhopping with another friend of his. Ike is in his mid-20s, blithely self-absorbed and impossibly confident–about his future as a poet and about life in general. He already seems to have made friends with half the neighborhood (the half with MFAs). Eric is disgusted and transfixed by this youthful exuberance. His voice is reminiscent of Kenny Becker, the narrator of the hilarious Ladies Man (1978), one of the four more intimate, autobiographical novels Price wrote, before his Dempsy books, about young men, Jewish or Italian, who grew up in the Bronx projects of the 1960s and ’70s. Eric and Kenny are from modest backgrounds in which artists and writers and highly paid professionals played no part; both flounder, amusingly, in hapless careers and romantic lives, and both are eager to please, self-deprecating and slightly ill at ease no matter what urban milieu they’re in.
At the end of the night of barhopping, Eric, Ike and Ike’s friend Steve get mugged by Tristan and Little Dap. While Eric is cooperative with them and Steve too drunk to resist, Ike says, “Not tonight, my man,” and steps toward Tristan. The startled Tristan shoots him in the chest. “Suicide by mouth” is how one incredulous cop later describes Ike’s retort, but it’s pretty clear that Ike’s impulse was not self-destructive but rather overconfident and a little self-absorbed–he failed, or didn’t even try, to size up Tristan accurately. Perhaps Ike is also representative of his generation of New Yorkers. Unlike Eric, who makes a point of not looking at the muggers’ faces, Ike is clearly unschooled in mugging etiquette. He would have been an adolescent in the late ’90s, when crime was already down in much of the city. It’s just possible that he didn’t grow up with terrifying stories and dire warnings about muggings, as he certainly would have a generation earlier even in the affluent neighborhood of Riverdale, where he was raised. Faced with an actual mugging, Ike is like a turtle hatchling on Galapagos, unprepared by his environment to feel the protective degree of fear.
We learn the details of this murder fairly early in the novel, long before the police do. The rest of the book alternately follows Eric and Tristan, who go their separate ways to make sense of the night’s events, and Matty Clark, the homicide detective in charge of the case. Matty is a pleasantly sensible and wry white man in his mid-40s. He is obsessed with his work, as literary detectives must be, and neglectful of his family, as they often are. In the course of the investigation Matty ends up spending a great deal of time, mostly involuntarily, with Ike’s father, Billy, who drifts around the Lower East Side after the murder, sometimes trying ineffectually to help the police, disoriented and slightly clownish in his grief. His distress pricks Matty’s conscience about his two neglected sons. Billy is a strange creation. Price devotes many pages to him and allows him to interrupt gripping detective scenes, pulling Matty away from his work and into a conversation in which it becomes clear that Billy–limited to halting recollections of Ike and platitudes from the recovery literature he has been reading–has nothing revelatory to say. “See the tragedy as a part of the human condition,” Billy tells himself, to Matty, in a typical exchange, “you know, like how every event has a purpose, or, or, something worse has been averted according to God’s plan. OK? And, by the way, nothing says you can’t keep the bond with the loved one.” Billy doesn’t speak as much as Price’s other characters, but he appears unexpectedly all over the place, and it seems that we, like Matty, are simply meant to be in the presence of his inarticulate grief.
Though the main voices of the novel are those of Eric, Tristan and Matty, Price sometimes breaks entirely from their point of view and allows us to overhear the thoughts of a handful of other characters. The result is a somewhat sprawling and unfocused narrative, not as tight as Price’s previous books but perhaps better suited to the cacophony of its downtown setting. The Dempsy novels are strictly limited to two alternating points of view: a midlevel drug dealer and a cop who’s trying to arrest him in Clockers; a journalist and a cop, both originally from the projects, in Freedomland. In these earlier books one of the main characters is white, the other black; the dual narrative suggests a world in which there are only two kinds of racial identity. Points of contact between the groups are rare and explosive–when whites come into the projects, whatever their intentions, they usually end up bringing trouble.
On the pan-racial Lower East Side of Lush Life, the interactions among different ethnic groups are many–and none, on the surface, seem to be potentially explosive. As Tristan marvels to himself looking out at a local crowd, the “sand niggers, flat-face Chinese, blancos, other kids” all throng the same sidewalks. Price emphasizes this multiethnic intimacy by arranging serendipitous encounters and connections among the various characters affected by Ike’s death. The funniest of these is Matty’s discovery that he, Ike and one of the suspects in the murder have all slept with the same barmaid. Neither Matty nor the suspect knows her name, but he recognizes her from the suspect’s description: she has a tattoo of the Seven Dwarves that runs along her inner thigh. In another episode, Ike’s little sister comes down from Riverdale to the converted immigrant dance hall where Ike’s memorial service is held and unknowingly walks by Tristan, who happens to be hanging out on the same block. Tristan notices her even though “normally he just looked right through white kids, probably pretty much like they just looked right through him.”
As the chance encounters add up, it becomes painfully clear how superficial they are. As Tristan suggests, people seem to look through one another. Until, of course, someone gets in their way. What Lush Life lays bare about the new Lower East Side is not hidden depths of vice or depravity but the lack of neighborliness among the different tribes that live and work there. The seemingly intimate bustle on the streets is a byproduct of lots of people all trying to make money in the same place. Some of them work at cross-purposes, some symbiotically, but all of them, in this novel, are ultimately focused on themselves. The character who best thrives in the neighborhood is Eric’s boss, Harry Steele, who owns Café Berkmann and other restaurants and properties around the city. He pays top dollar for historic photographs of ragged slum dwellers to hang in his upscale Rivington Street cafe; cozies up to the police so that they don’t enforce local noise ordinances; and lives in a converted synagogue on Suffolk Street, where the ark that once held the Torah is now filled with “Steele’s collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cookbooks.”
Social realism and crime fiction tend to expose police forces as corrupt or ineffectual; Price’s fiction has shown not only the limitations or corruption of individual cops but the systemic compromises that the police have made with people involved in the drug trade. In Lush Life, the stakes are different: how do you write a social-realist crime novel about a neighborhood in which the police are uncompromising, effective and pretty decent all around?
As an answer, Price creates a resolution in which law enforcement works the way it’s supposed to and yet we’re left profoundly unsettled. The police department, of course, still has its bureaucracies and petty tyrants, and even these days murder cases hardly solve themselves. After getting misleading witness testimony and wasting time pursuing a false lead, the cops are stuck interviewing residents of tenement buildings near the murder scene, half of whom speak only Fujianese and the other half of whom claim not to have heard or seen a thing. When Ike’s father offers a large reward for information, the police station is flooded with hundreds of tips,
90 percent the usual crackpots, chronic dime-droppers, and his favorite, the grudge settlers, who offered up cheating boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, alimony skippers, do-nothing landlords, and deadbeat tenants; who offered up perps of the wrong race, wrong class, wrong age, and wrong neighborhood; shooters who lived on Sutton Place, on Central Park West, in Chappaqua, in Texas, in Alaska for now, but that’s just where he’s stationed; and as always, the Lords of Transportation calling in by the dozens: the guy was just at my token booth, on my train, on my bus, in my cab, in my dollar van, in my dreams; all of these invariably dropped into the Not Entertained pile; but how could you call it Not Entertained when it included an old lady in Brooklyn Heights giving up her son who lived in Hawaii but could have flown in for this, he does it all the time.
The police do eventually find out that Tristan was the killer, but not through Matty’s detective work. Quality of Life officers catch Little Dap with a small amount of marijuana and bring him in for questioning. They threaten him with some bogus charges, and he gives them Tristan’s name with barely a fight. This is exactly how the Quality of Life Task Force is supposed to work in the real world, but as the culmination of a novel it is deliberately, slyly anticlimactic. Price doesn’t give us the satisfaction of a case doggedly pursued to completion; he leaves us instead with a disquieting awareness of the randomness and luck involved in police work.
The unconventional ending also seems faithful to the perspective of the victims, Ike’s family and Eric, whose personal narratives of the event would presumably have a different shape from that demanded by a standard police procedural: for them the suspense was over when Ike was pronounced dead, and it hardly matters which police unit catches the murderer or how. In fact, they express only intermittent interest in the identity of the murderer. Even if they knew who the killer was, what would they make of Tristan as the perpetrator of this great horror in their lives, a shy, miserable teenager who participated in the mugging because he wanted his friend to like him? Price doesn’t go into much detail about Tristan’s past, but we know that the only person who cared about him, his grandmother, died when he was young and that he has been passed around among indifferent or abusive guardians ever since. He now lives with a violent ex-stepfather, tries diffidently to make friends with kids in his building and is another of the neighborhood’s aspiring poets, carrying around a notebook filled with swaggering, violent verse. Absorbed in his own pain, Tristan is even more self-centered than Ike. After the murder, he never thinks about the life that he has brought to an end.
In this way, at least, Lush Life is more pessimistic than Price’s earlier books, in which the violent crime at the center of the novel is an urgent moral issue for the perpetrators. The plot of Clockers is set in motion when a low-level drug dealer balks at carrying out an order from his boss: to kill another dealer. The man who actually does commit the murder is suicidal with remorse; his mother has to talk him down from shooting himself as he holds a gun to his chest. Brenda Martin, a white woman in Freedomland who falsely tells the police that a black man from the projects kidnapped her son, is tormented by her secret knowledge of the role that she played in her son’s death. In Lush Life, on the other hand, Price makes a point of just how little a murder can matter to the perpetrator, how little thought and effort it takes to kill someone (even Ike’s entry wound was “inconsequential, a third nipple slightly off-center between the other two”). The vast difference between Tristan’s reaction to the murder and that of Ike’s family and Eric echoes all the other contrasts that we’ve seen in the neighborhood. Tristan savors his secret knowledge of the murder. It steels him against the abuse and social ostracism he faces in the projects; he even begins to stand up to his abusive stepfather by hitting him back. From Tristan’s point of view, at least before he gets arrested, Ike’s murder is the best thing that has happened to him in a long time.