Richard Price has now written seven novels; Samaritan is his latest. He also writes screenplays for booze money, although some of them, notably Sea of Love and The Color of Money, turned into quite decent movies. Price grew up in a tough neighborhood in the Bronx and knocked about some before finding his vocation. His first four novels, The Wanderers, Bloodbrothers, The Breaks, and Ladies’ Man, were written from his own experience. They have their moments, especially his first, The Wanderers, which still enjoys a considerable reputation. But in retrospect they look like apprentice work.
Price eventually ran out of experience, and sallied forth to do some reporting, out of which came his fifth novel, Clockers, an epic of the crack trade. With Clockers Price became the Balzac of the underclass. Like Balzac, he has an unerring eye for status detail — which soft drink, which brand of sneaker, how low you wear your jeans. In the first chapter of Clockers you learn that the preferred reading of crack dealers is shopping catalogues.
Ever since Peanut fished a dozen catalogues out of a garbage can, everybody was in a state of mild disorder, passing around the thin glossies as if they were sex books. Strike would have cracked a whip if it was anything else, but he was the worst. He’d meant to go over to Rodney’s store an hour before, during the dinner lull, but had remained glued to the bench, a half-dozen catalogues on his lap, running his fingers down page after page of camisoles, hand-carved Christmas-tree angels, computerized jogging machines, golf putting sets for den and office, personalized stationery, lawn furniture — anything and everything for man, woman or child. The catalogues made him weak in the knees, fascinated him to the point of helplessness, the idea of all these things to be had, organized in a book that he could hold in one hand. Not that he would order anything — possessions drew attention, made you a target. None of the boys would order out of a catalogue either, not necessarily because they were paranoid like Strike, but because the ordering process — telephones, mailings, deliveries — required too much contact with the world outside the street.
You don’t find this out hanging around writers’ workshops.
Price also has a remarkable ear. (He spends a good deal of his time in Hollywood doctoring dialogue.) One of the characters in Samaritan is a prison autodidact, but Price never says so, he doesn’t have to; just listen to him talk:
“Yeah, well no, not like an employee per se. However, I’m working on something. I got this idea for a nonprofit organization to help inmates return to so-called society? I call it LIFE — Living in Fear of Extinction. I want to set up a whole reentry program, you know, literacy, computer literacy, how to fill out résumés, how to communicate, how to be prompt, how to be inspirational, how to make eye contact. See right now, I’m at the research stage, I need to learn how to file an application for tax-exempt status, how to find sponsors, how to–“
“Anything else?” Ray unable to hear this shit.
“Other? Well, yeah, I had this T-shirt thing goin’ on, you know, bought shirts in bulk, designed my own logo, hooked up with this printer did silk-screening on a delayed payment schedule but that’s all on financial hold for the time being, and I was also working on a comic book I wanted to publish, called Dawgs of War, about the future, when America wages war on the Republic of Nubia and it was gonna focus on one platoon of guys from the hood, how they get educated over there, you know, come to understand that they’re fighting…you know, that they’re on the wrong side…”
“Per se,” “inspirational,” “on financial hold for the time being” — all of this is exact. But the acronym and, especially, the question mark after “so-called society” betray the hand of the master.
Children are prominent in all of Price’s novels, and the only novelist I can think of who shows a comparable understanding of the species is Richard Hughes, in A High Wind to Jamaica. Price’s children aren’t the precocious wiseasses of sitcoms, or Spielbergian tuning forks who, quivering to the music of the spheres, always sense the truth and can’t persuade the cold-hearted adults to believe them. They’re children — half-formed, amoral savages struggling to become adults.
Samaritan, like its predecessors Clockers and Freedomland, is a police thriller. A crime is committed early on, the perp is unknown, and the story ends approximately when the investigating officer, always a major character, discovers who did it. (The legal machinations are always omitted. Price likes cops but seems to have no use for lawyers.)
Although the plotting is always handled competently, and the identity of the perpetrator is always difficult to guess, Price’s real interests lie with motive. His novels are whydunits more than whodunits, which I guess you could say about all good novels. They are mysteries because human motives are mysterious.
In Samaritan the victim is Ray Mitchell, a former high school teacher and cabdriver turned television writer who, at loose ends, decides to move back to his own neighborhood and do good. Mitchell is assaulted and seriously injured. He knows who did it but refuses to talk. An old acquaintance of his from the neighborhood, Nerese Ammons, a twenty-year veteran with six months to retirement, winds up investigating the crime. The novel alternates chapters, to impressive effect, between the events leading up the assault and its aftermath.
Mitchell spreads his money around — pays for one woman’s funeral, underwrites another man’s T-shirt business — learning the hard way the truth of John Jacob Astor’s remark: “Why does that man hate me? I never lent him money.” It buys him first bemusement, then solicitation, and finally enmity and a serious whack upside the head. “Ray thinks he wants to make a dent,” his ex-wife says, “when he really only wants to make a splash.” Nerese, too, questions her own motives in bothering with this case when she could just ride out the last few months to her pension.
Ray himself is far from stupid, and he knows that his motives are mixed. He tells Nerese about blowing a big TV deal and taking it out on his daughter Ruby at the mall:
“We get in the mall and I say, ‘Ruby, the hell with it. Let’s just buy shit. Whatever you want, who cares…’ She says, ‘That’s OK, I’ll just look.’ I’m like, ‘Ruby, c’mon, I just swung a big deal [he’s lying and she knows it], a dollar’s like a penny today.’ And I sort of bully her into buying some studs for her ears, can’t get her to buy clothes, can’t get her to buy any skin stuff, she grudgingly lets me buy her some teen magazine and it got really tense, the both of us like in this battle in the mall. And at one point she stops at a kiosk where they’re selling belly-button rings, and she got hers pierced a few weeks before and I see her eyeing this one ring, sort of a curved silver rod with dice at either end and, I’m instantly breathing down her neck, ‘You want that? You want that?’ Which of course makes her want to run away. She says, ‘Just looking,’ and wanders off. I’m so panic-stricken, the minute her back is turned, I buy it plus two others, then I sort of mosey up behind her, say, ‘Miss, did you drop these?’ and show her the three belly-button rings in my hand and she, goes, berserk. She starts sobbing and screaming at me, ‘Stop buying me stuff! Stop buying me stuff! Please! Daddy! Please! I don’t want anything!'”
Ayn Rand covered thoroughly the horror of altruism for the giver. Price deals with its horror for the recipient, for whom it’s like an oversolicitous host raised, in this case, several orders of magnitude. While Clockers is painted on a larger canvas, it lacks Samaritan‘s psychological penetration.
Which is the better book? Depends on your taste. But they’re both awfully good, and in different ways, which gives me hope that Price may have yet to do his best work.
(Cross-posted to BlogCritics.)