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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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.
One thing I love, from both Clockers and The Wire, is that Goodnight Moon bit: “Good night, taxis ... Good night, bridges ... Good night, crackheads ... Good night, werewolves ...” Where did that come from?
I had little kids when I was writing Clockers, and when you’ve got kids, Goodnight Moon is a big deal. So I spend all day in Jersey City going through this crack house or that stinky holding cell and then come home to this loft on Great Jones Street next to Tower Records. [Laughs.] It’s a little schizophrenic.
You once said that autobiography always creeps into writing, even if you’re doing a word jumble, so I was looking for that in the characters of Lush Life.
With Matty, the interesting thing for me wasn’t the cop stuff, it’s the “I just want to do my job, and all these people above me that are allegedly interested in me doing my job are just fucking with me.” Richard Pryor would say, “Little monkey fingers in my ears.” If I have to find it with Tristan, what I could connect to with him is that sort of teenage self-revulsion. And Eric, there’s a guy who, if I didn’t catch a lucky break in my 20s with The Wanderers, then, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I would have been a guy who thought I was destined for something and it didn’t happen.
You’re real good with the wannabes: the bartender-writer, the waiter-actor, the waitress-whatever. You know these people?
Yeah, sure. I was one of those people. I was a telemarketer before the word existed. I was a Fuller Brush man. I was doing all this bullshit work, and it was okay because I thought I was cut out for better things. These kids down there, these aren’t trust-fund babies, they’re doing crappy jobs, but it doesn’t bother them, because they know they’re going places. And that’s the difference between them and Eric: He knows he’s not going anywhere.
You got going so young with The Wanderers.
I was in a writing program at Columbia, I was, like, 22, and I read this bullshit story about growing up. And everybody in the class hated it, everybody from the teacher on down. It was racist, it was stupid. The Italians won the fight and the blacks lost, so it was racist. But there was a guy in the class named Daniel Halpern, and he had a magazine at that time called Antaeus, and he came up at the end of the class and said, “Can I publish it?” And I said, “Yeah, all right.”
Okay, parallel reality: Your first novel comes out, everyone hates it. You’d keep going, right?
I would have kept going. If you’re an artist, you gotta have tunnel vision. If you get so affected by external reactions to your stuff that you can’t work? You gotta be made of sterner stuff than that! I remember Paul Schrader told me that one of his movies, The Comfort of Strangers, premiered in this big, open piazza in Italy, and they had 5,000 people watching. I said, “How’d it go?” And he said, “Well, they started booing three minutes into the movie and they never stopped.” And I said, “Well ... what did you feel?” He said, “I felt they were wrong.” And I went, “Shit, man, good for you.” [Laughs.] That’s like Paul Bunyan indifference. You can be all kinds of fragile, and be all kinds of neurotic, but when you’ve got a story and it’s the right story — you feel it in your gut: This is what I should be doing right now. This is right. This is it. Everything else is mosquito noise.
As a kid, were you a storyteller? A comedian?
All of that. I was a mimic. I was a voracious reader. I found a lot of solace in that. I wasn’t very good at a lot of the external stuff. I wasn’t particularly good-looking, I wasn’t a good dancer, I hated math. I didn’t have great hair. You gotta have something. So for me, I was gonna be the raconteur.
That makes me think of Tristan, the projects kid with a messed-up face, no identity, no pride, no hope, until he gets his hands on a gun, half-accidentally kills someone, and then starts writing all these rhymes.
He’s almost kind of sociopathically autistic. He can’t open his mouth, and he’s sort of discovering himself by violence. He finally has something that he feels like he did. Unfortunately, it’s killing someone. [Laughs.]
I love the scene where he goes with his gun to all the streets and storefronts where he used to feel stupid and afraid. His last moment of glory on the planet, before he falls off it forever.
Well, he finally has something to say: “Fuck me? Fuck you.” You know?
You’re great at creating sympathy for your characters, even the damaged ones, but that actor, Steven Boulware, who uses his buddy’s death as an excuse to preen for the cameras — is he off the sympathy radar?
I just went to town on him. If you create a character and if you don’t feel for the character, it’s a bogus character. But if you’re not going to have any sympathy for somebody, you better make him entertaining. And I think that guy caught a bad ride with me. I’ve met people over the years that could take your breath away. They were almost innocent, they were so self-absorbed ...
In the book, the cops talk about the “I test,” where you look at a suspect’s statement and if the I’s and mys outweigh the other pronouns, that guy has flunked.
Right, they told me about that. You’re not gonna find it in any police manual. It might be one peculiar cop’s peculiar litmus test. The thing is, a cop is like a psychoanalyst. The difference being that a psychoanalyst is there to help people. The relationship a cop has between himself and his patient is, My job is to get inside this person and break them down. The assumption when [the cop is] talking to someone is, They’re lying. The minute you meet somebody, you need to fuck them ... to get whatever you’re looking for, justice or whatever — truth and the American way.
So are you pretty cynical at heart?
Nah, if you were a real cynic, you wouldn’t bother. You’d just be getting hammered all the time. You can pose with a cynical tone, but the impulse to say, “Oh, I’m gonna tell you this 450-page story ...” That’s kind of big-eyed, you know?
Do the cops you run around with read your stuff?
Yeah, yeah, it’s a like a busman’s holiday for them. Though you’d be amazed: The cops who read this book, their favorite character is Tristan, cuz they know this kid. They say to me, “He sounds like half the kids I’ve ever locked up.” Just in terms of where they were coming from or what brought them to this point. Which is not to say that they don’t deserve to go to jail. But these cops feel — okay, people are complicated. [Sighs.] Yeah, he’s the guy they gotta lock up and throw away the key, but he’s also the guy they probably know better than anybody, cuz he’s their constant customer. To see how this guy got to be in their custody ... it can be moving for them.
Are cops tough readers?
Yeah, but it’s a reader I’m looking for: the cop, the guy running the restaurant. And my fear is that halfway through, they’re just gonna close the book, and say, “Pfft, this guy just doesn’t get it.” I mean, there’s no such thing as “the truth.” If 10 people looked out a window and saw a man and woman in an argument, and the man slapping the woman, you’d have 10 different stories. But I try, I really try to capture as accurately and honestly as I can that elusive spirit, of what it’s like to be dot dot dot, think like a dot dot dot.
I read somewhere that Lenny Bruce was an early inspiration for you.
I read this crummy little paperback with tape transcripts of his routines, and there was something in his speech rhythms that sounded perfect to me. The outer-borough wise-ass half-despairing random free-firing cultural synapses, you know? All those metaphors and similes spilling out — I just responded, it turned me on, and made me loosen up, and go. Just seeing that you can do that on a page, you can capture it.
You ever get jealous of other art forms, performing artists, musicians?
Yeah. A novel is like hibernation. You’re rearranging the 26 letters of the alphabet for decades. It sucks. I like to do readings because that’s the closest I’ll come to an antidote for all this sitting at the goddamn desk until the chair collapses.
George Pelecanos said somewhere, “If I read the script, I know it’s Richard’s. And it’s mainly his humor.” What is that sense of humor?
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Well, it’s sardonic. I think the hardest thing in the world is to be funny on purpose. But if you just capture people the way they truly speak — there’s something about a true ear that’s naturally funny. It’s not, Oh, I’m gonna tell a joke. It’s, I’m gonna capture how somebody makes an excuse for something. What makes people laugh or smile is just the recognition, the dead-on-ness. Dead-on equals funny.
So you’ve dodged the muggings. What other kinds of tight spots have you been in?
Being in a crack house when I wasn’t supposed to be, when the person who was supposed to be with me, watching my back, went AWOL. Being with a couple drunk cops when they decided to make a raid on a drug spot and having to run after them while they were running after the guys they were running after, and getting lost, and being by myself in what looked like the Tet Offensive. That was not fun. But by and large, I’m fairly interested in surviving, you know? Making it to the publishing party.
Richard Price reads at ALOUD at Central Library, 630 W. Fifth St., L.A., on Tues., March 25, at 7 p.m. Free, reservations recommended www.aloudla.org or (213) 228-7025.