Saturday, October 04, 2008

LUSH LIFE by Richard Price

My guest blogger today is a good friend, Geoffrey R. Hamlin. He shares some thoughts on mysteries, literature and Richard Price.

There is a never-ending, but thoroughly enjoyable argument as to whether “mysteries” (now crime fiction) can be deemed worthy of consideration as literature. I am firmly in the camp of Raymond Chandler who not only practiced “literature” himself but argued forcefully in his Atlantic Monthly essay “The Simple Art of Murder” that there were good and bad mysteries, just like there were good and bad novels, short stories and plays. The top tier of these all share characteristics that qualify them as literature.

Among today’s crime fiction writers, James Lee Burke and Richard Price can both be considered creators of literature. Mr. Burke because he grapples with big themes, including Good and Evil in cosmic proportions. Mr. Price’s writing offers even more.

Mr. Price is a master of place. His work, like that of George Pelacanos, not only gets the “hood” right down to its grimiest details, but also successfully contrasts it to the area surrounding it and the world at large. Lush Life is set in the lower East Side of New York, a neighborhood in a state of flux, inhabited by old ethnic populations, newer ethnic poverty and the early beachheads of the upwardly mobile. Price not only conveys the details and essence of this area but also shows how influential it is upon the actors and outcome of the story. The neighborhood almost becomes a character itself in Lush Life.

Then there is his word choice. In his book The Joy of Music, Leonard Bernstein wrote that Beethoven’s genius lay in choosing exactly the right note. Mr. Price is a composer of dialogue displaying the same sort of genius. This skill is regularly commented on by others (Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, for one). It is evident in his movies (Sea of Love, The Color of Money) and television work (The Wire, CSI). And it is displayed at the very top of his form in Lush Life. One reviewer (James Wood in the New Yorker) has commented to the effect that if Price’s words sometimes do not accurately portray the way cops and bad guys really talk, it is something even better. The fact that each of these reviewers seizes on different passages to illustrate their point shows how consistently right the language in Lush Life is.

Next is the story itself. In Lush Life, we are treated to a very detailed account of the events surrounding a neighborhood mugging which resulted in a fatal shooting. The lead investigator is presented with conflicting evidence and initially concludes that he cannot rule out one of the two men who were accosted as actually committing the murder. He decides to hold him for further questioning to see if he can break down this man’s story. The consequences of this small decision have a major impact on the lives of all the novel’s players - the suspect, the policeman, their families, the family of the murdered man, the actual killer and all those around them.

Finally, there is meaning. After this rich novelistic meal, we are left to consider and digest the message that although we live in a society where alienation and loneliness are rampant, nonetheless the decisions we make every day and our smallest actions still have a significant impact on many people around us, even people of whom we are not aware. Perhaps, we should take a little more time and care with our decisions.

For these reasons, I believe that Richard Price has produced a work of literature in Lush Life. For the same reasons, I believe that his Clockers and Samaritan would also qualify. Lush Life is the best of the three and I expect that it will probably be the best book that I read this year. (And I read a lot of books.)

Guest blogger Geoffrey R. Hamlin is a reviewer for and the Tampa Tribune.

A comment from the BookBitch: Dennis Lehane is the author that has been generating a lot of buzz about this melding of mystery and literature recently. The author of the mystery Mystic River and the thriller Shutter Island, along with a mystery series, released his latest book that was several years in the making. The Given Day, if one needs to categorize it, would most appropriately be called historical fiction, as the story is set in the early part of the twentieth century. It is fine literature, but to me, so were Mystic River and Shutter Island.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, I just read that Elmore Leonard is receiving the Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature at the 13th Annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference.

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