Thursday, May 22, 2008


Richard Price has long been on my TBR (To Be Read) pile. I've been hearing about him forever - former screenwriter, coke addict, staff writer for The Wire, a "literary" Elmore Leonard - but I never got around to giving him a try. I don't know why his latest, entitled Lush Life, was the one that finally brought me to him, but now I'm stuck. I can't read anything else but Price.

Okay, so I actually do know why I finally read Price's latest and it definitely had something to do with his TV work. I am not alone when I say that The Wire the smartest show ever broadcast and this final season had me worried: now that this amazing story is over, where else do I go for this kind of writing? I had read everything available written by both Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos - the other two novelists on the show's writing staff - and found them to be the two of the most consistent writers in popular crime fiction today.

Everybody knows Lehane is the man and for proof you don't even need to read anything by him. You can just check out the two great movies that have been made from his books - Mystic River and Gone, Baby Gone (with a MARTIN SCORSESE adaptation on the way of his book Shutter Island) and there is no question: The guy can tell a noir story like none other.

In regards to Pelecanos, let me just say that two years ago I had the REAL "summer of George" and read nothing but Pelecanos novels for three months straight, wrapping up with his last book, The Night Gardener and found that everything from King Suckerman on was pure gold (the five preceding Suckerman are certainly good, but not The Sweet Forever good, not Soul Circus good).

Because I am The Nerd, I was aware that both Lehane and Pelecanos had books coming out later in the year, but that seemed like decades ahead from where I was sitting.

So I had to venture out and try the "literary" Elmore Leonard. I think that that was the main reason I resisted him, that perception of him as the hoidy-toidy version of the master. Leonard is God and a big reason why he is God is because he is so spare, so stripped down. His books are hardly anything but action and dialogue and yet you still feel full at the end of the book, still feel like you were told a story in the most efficient yet beautiful way possible. A Leonard book is like a Budd Boetticher western: It is short and sweet and definitely has a formula, but handled in such an effortlessly smart and exciting way that you didn't know it was a B-movie/crime novel. Who did this douchebag Price think he was that he could try and improve upon Elmore fucking Leonard?

Well, I had it all wrong. The main resemblance Price has to Leonard is that he tells crime stories and that he kicks ass at dialogue. In fact, Price even occasionally surpasses Leonard at dialogue. It's sacrilege, I know, but he does. And it's not just the dialogue of low-lifes that he has down, but everybody on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The street kids, the street cops, the detectives, the service industry employees, the Asians packed into apartments, the out-of-towners, they all have their own voice and all talk with one another in that heightened way of Price's that is pitched somewhere between the greatest "Movie movie" you've ever seen ("Movie movie" is my term for films like The Departed or Collateral where things are too perfectly cinematic in a way but also just awesome in terms of being an old-fashioned movie) and the recognizable, reality, authenticity.

And it's that authenticity that makes Price who he is. This book is sort of like Price just walked around the neighborhood the book is set in following all kinds of different people and then tossing them all into a book, giving everybody their day. Yes, it has a police procedural structure but that is simply a device used to get at hanging out in this neighborhood in a compelling way. And it is compelling.

The action is set off by the murder of a hipster in what appears to be a botched mugging attempt. We know who actually murdred him a third of the way into the book and from there it is simply about waiting on Matty the homicide cop to catch up with us the reader? Sounds kind of terrible, right? But it is ridiculously entertaining. Price makes us give a shit about everyone in this book from the cops to the perpetrators to the people on the sidelines. And that sense of community is what it all comes down to. Price operates in sort of a Dickensian way in that he has a strong central narrative, the police procedural being his favorite mode, but he constantly branches off from that to show us the society, the people on the periphery. Also like Dickens, he manages not only to make this not boring, but actually really exciting to read.

So while he may have a lot more pages in his book than Leonard would and a lot more attention to little details and things other than the direct story, Price really doesn't waste your time at any point, keeps things moving all the time. It is simply in a different way. And though this may not be a strict "noir" book like something the other writers mentioned might have written, it is certainly just as good as any of them and just as exciting.

Now I sort of have blinders on. I'm blocking out all the other writing coming my way and only reading Price. I've gone through Clockers, Freedomland, and Samaritan already and they are all great. Clockers was turned into a decent enough movie by Spike Lee with Harvey Keitel a decade or so back, but seeing how it was a major influence on The Wire, I can't help but imagine what it would be like as an HBO miniseries by the same producers of The Wire. I'd also like to see a re-do of Freedomland, too but that's never going to happen. Though it only took a few years for the studios to give The Incredible Hulk another shot so who knows anymore....

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