Richard Price grew up in the Bronx projects when they were a completely different animal: racially diverse, Jews, Italians, blacks working and living mostly in peace, everyone expecting the next generation to move on, move up, move out. In 1974, still in his early 20s, Price published The Wanderers, a novel about a teenage-gang dustup in the Bronx, and though the violence was milder in those precrack days, his novel was nevertheless an eye-opening look into the life and lexicon of urban life, praised by both Hubert Selby Jr. (“musically true”) and William Burroughs (a “moving account of confused and spiritually underprivileged youth”). After a few more novels, Price began writing for Hollywood, doing the scripts for The Color of Money and Sea of Love. While working on Sea of Love, Price started hanging out with cops, a practice that led him to write his midcareer masterpiece, Clockers, a sprawling, pitch-perfect novel of cops and crack dealers in New Jersey. The novel established Price’s new M.O.: using the plot and structure of a police procedural as a tool to slice into issues of race, class, crime, and as a literary excuse to loiter in the vernacular of the streets.
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(Click to enlarge)
Price’s latest novel, Lush Life, tackles New York’s Lower East Side, a ground zero of cultural mash-up, where Chinese immigrants, eager hipsters and the children of the Lemlich housing projects all roam alongside the ghosts of centuries of crime and poverty. At the crux of the tale is the murder of an idealistic actor, Ike Marcus, who makes the mistake of saying, “Not tonight, my man,” to a teenage mugger. Using a roving third-person perspective, the book brings us inside a multitude of minds: Eric Cash, a not-so-young bartender facing down the end of his artistic ambitions; the police crew of the “Quality of Life” fake-taxi patrol car; Matty Clark, a homicide detective with pot-dealing sons; and Tristan, a sullen, beat-down Latino kid discovering the power of violence for the first time. Like a drop of oil shimmering in a puddle, Price’s book ripples out, ever-expanding, into the cracks and alleys of the urban landscape. The effect is remarkable: You see the city afresh, you eavesdrop like a tourist, your mind fills with curiosity, wonder, amusement and a slight terror. Lush Life should be required reading for anyone entering New York — sold, perhaps, at tollbooths — because this is what it sounds like.
I meet Price up on the fourth floor of his gorgeous home near Gramercy Park. His right hand is crippled from childhood polio, and he offers me an awkward overhand lefty shake. He’s got a kind of hangdog look to him, like a character actor, an informant, or maybe someone in an early Scorsese or Cassavetes film. Surrounded by rare first editions and gleaming Hiroshi Sugimoto prints of cinema palaces, he seems out of place here, as if he’d fit in better at a diner or a deli. The plush cushions of the couch swallow him up, but his voice is magnetic with gritty Bronx charisma, all “gotta ... gonna ... I sawr ... cuz ... ya know?”
L.A. WEEKLY:Your books make me kind of jumpy. Does writing them ever make you nervous?
RICHARD PRICE: Nah, if anything, it makes me naively impervious, cuz I feel like I’ve seen so much and I know so much. As a rule, New Yorkers tend to get mugged out of town, because you’re going around Baltimore, you feel like, “Hey, I’m from New York, man.” “I’ve negotiated the streets of New York my whole life, what’s Cleveland going to do?” Oh, here’s what Cleveland’s going to do. Same thing New York does if you’re a dope. Next thing you know, you’re face-down on the sidewalk, and you have no idea how you got there.
Have you ever been mugged?
No, and I wish you hadn’t asked, because now I will be.
How’d you meet David Simon and become one of the writers on The Wire?
His book Homicide came out the same time as Clockers, and we were introduced because we obviously had sympathetic fixations. We met on the night of the Rodney King verdict, and they were rioting in Jersey City, and we decided to go over to Jersey City, check out what was happening. That was our first play date.
So the first thing you thought was, “Riots? Let’s go.”
David’s a reporter, and like all good reporters, he’s pretty intrepid. And I’m coming off Clockers and felt like I was up for anything. Plus, in front of this guy, I’m not going to say, “No, no, that’s too scary.” So we did it. Later he told me The Wire was sort of based on Clockers, it was the starter’s yeast, which was flattering, because I thought it was the best thing I had ever seen. And he approached me and said, “Want to write for it?” My first reaction was no, because everything I knew, I put on the table in Clockers, and this stuff was much more complex, nuanced, it takes in a whole panorama, where I just stayed on the street.