Well after midnight on the streets of the Lower East Side of New York, three men, all more or less drunk, are held up. One keeps his eyes down and hands over his wallet. The other two end up on the ground.
One, because he's so drunk he can't stand up on his own and the other because he's shot through the heart. That crime is the stone in the pond which Richard Price uses to explore the actions and motives of his characters and to suggest the social changes in his old neighborhood.
By Richard Price
Farrar, Straus $ Giroux ($26)
Like many urban areas, the Lower East Side is in the throes of gentrification. Young professionals and artsy bohemian types are living and playing cheek by jowl with poor folks in the projects.
All they have in common is a desire for the lush life -- for pleasure, for drink, for drugs and for the money that makes these pleasures possible. The murder itself symbolizes the tensions between the two groups.
Price, well-known for his novels and screenplays ("Clockers," "The Color of Money," "The Wire,") takes his title from Billy Strayhorn's sophisticated and world-weary lyric, which sings of pleasure as a decadent consolation for lost loves, loneliness and failure:
"Romance is mush/Stifling those who strive/ I'll live a lush life in some small dive/And there I'll be, while I rot with the rest/Of those whose lives are lonely too."
We see this revealed in the personal lives of the many characters in this panoramic fiction.
There are no heroes or heroines, but there are a couple of characters who are crucial to the developing drama.
One is Eric Cash, who has a real talent for managing the trendy Cafe Berkmann, but has failed to make a career as a creative writer.
In the robbery, he gave up his wallet and told the police that he couldn't identify the two who robbed, shot and left. He also told some lies and had his account of the crime contradicted by a couple who were across the street at the time.
As a result Eric becomes the chief suspect for the shooting, endures a long and very stressful interrogation and gets lots of bad publicity.
Eventually he turns cynical, then criminal as the novel proceeds. It was, as they say, a life-changing experience.
Matty Clark, a veteran cop, leads the investigation. As a professional he is shrewd, careful and committed, fighting his own bureaucracy and politicians for the manpower to do a thorough job.
He has great sympathy for the victim's family, but trouble with his own. He's divorced, with grown sons, one of whom is a cop in upstate New York. First, his ex tells him his sons are coming to visit. Next he hears they have been arrested in the city for selling marijuana.
Matty, of course, attempts to use his connections to get his kids released. He's also lonely and very attracted to the second wife of the victim's father. Clearly, he's walking on the edge.
These are only two of the many interesting characters whose actions will be both surprising and understandable. The very drunk friend of the dead man organizes a memorial service to the dead man and ends up turning it into a narcissistic display.
A female cop, from the projects herself, is a subtle psychologist and ruthless interrogator.
The owner of the Cafe Berkmann, where Eric works, combines a cynicism and paternal affection for Eric that seems both sincere and absurd.
Price's experience as a scriptwriter makes his dialogues and interrogations the highlight of the book. He's a subtle portrayer of the motives and idiosyncrasies of characters operating under the pressure of urban life.
At the same time we get the authenticity of police and political procedures, which Price learned by observing the pros and the cons for some time. He is obviously at home in the streets and anxious, like the realists of the past, to tell us what's new and, of course, the old, very interesting and sometimes seamy stories of human passions.
Many years ago George V. Higgins wrote "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," and turned the police procedural into art.
With "Lush Life," Price extends the Higgins tradition. This is a police procedural on steroids, filled with dazzling dialogue, subtle and surprising turns of action and character, and a fascinating look at the personal and social demons of those who want to take a hefty bite of the Big Apple.
Michael Helfand teaches English literature at the University of Pittsburgh.