This book would have earned one of my very rare but much sort after 5-star Corker Awards but I have decided that Corker Awards must be confined to pulp fiction only. This book, Lush Life by Richard Price, I think qualifies as a novel, although, to be honest, I'm not sure quite what the definition of a 'novel' is, not least because I rarely read them. However, if a novel is concerned as much with character and setting as it is with action then Lush Life easily qualifies.
If I begin by telling you that the author, Richard Price, was a writer on the TV series The Wire then you will know instantly that the quality of the writing will be excellent. The story is set in an area called the Lower East Side of New York. From the description it is a district typical of all great western cities, a previously poor area gradually taken over by young, middle-class, arty 'wannabes', situated uneasily between the really affluent centre and the impoverished projects (council estates) on the outskirts. Needless to say, the friction arising as these very different stratas of society rub and rasp against each other produces considerable crime.
Thus the story begins with a particularly pointless, almost accidental, killing and as a result we meet our 'hero', Det. Matty Clark. I placed ironic inverted commas around the word 'hero' but in fact that is exactly what he is. Middle-aged, rancorously divorced, two useless sons, with a police command chain above him solely concerned with headlines, he struggles to make headway in finding the killer. There are no brilliant flashes of detecting insight, only his slow, relentless but tedious efforts in following well-honed police procedures. In this process we meet a gallery of characters who people the neighbourhood and the novel. Gradually you feel yourself enmeshed in the warp and woof of the Lower East Side, in exactly the same way that occurred in The Wire. No-one is particularly evil or particularly good, they are all just very, very human.
As a taste of the sardonic humour that arises from time to time, we meet on the very first page the self-styled 'Quality of Life' police team, four case-hardened cops who spend their shifts cruising the 'hood in a police car disguised as a taxi:
The Qality of Life Task Force: four sweatshirts in a bogus taxi set up on the corner of Clinton Street alonside the Williamsburg Bridge off-ramp to profile the salmon run; their mantra: Dope, guns, overtime; their motto: Everyone's got something to lose.
"Is dead tonight"
The four car-stops so far this evening have been washouts: three municipals - a postal inspector, a transit clerk, and a garbageman, all city employees off -limits - and one guy who did have a six-inch blade under his seat but no spring release.
A station-wagon coming off the bridge pulls up abreast of them at the Deancey Street light, the driver, a tall, gray, long-nosed man sporting a tweed jacket and a Cuffney cap.
"The Quiet Man," Geoghan murmurs.
"That'll do, pig," Scharf adds.
Lugo, Daley, Geoghan, Scharf; Bayside, New Dorp, Freeport, Pelham Bay, all in their thirties, which, at this late hour, made them some of the oldest white men on the Lower East Side.
Forty minutes without a nibble ...
Restless, they finally pull out to honeycomb the narrow streets for an hour of endless right turns: falafel joint, jazz joint, gyro joint, corner. Schoolyard, creperie, realtor, corner. Tenement, tenement, tenement museum, corner. Pink Pony, Bling Tiger, muffin boutique, corner. Sex shop, tea shop, synagogue, corner. Boulangerie, bar, hat boutique, corner. Iglesia, gelateria, matzo shop, corner. Bollywood, Buddha, botanica, corner. Leather outlet, leather outlet, leather outlet, corner. Bar, school, bar, school, People's Park, corner. Tyson mural, Celia Cruz mural, Lady Di mural, corner. Bling shop, barbershop, car service, corner. And then finally, on a sooty stretch of Eldridge, something with potential: a weary-faced Fujinese in a thin Members Only windbreaker, cigarette hanging, plastic bags dangling from crooked fingers like full waterbuckets, trudging up the dark, narrow street followed by a limping black kid half a block behind.
"What do you think?" Lugo taking a poll via the rear view. "Hunting for his Chinaman?"
"That's what I'd do," Scharf says.
"Guy looks beat. Probabaly just finished up his week."
"That'd be a nice score too. Payday Friday, pulled your eighty-four hours, walking home with what , four? Four-fifty?"
"Could be his roll on him if he doesn't use banks."
"C'mon, kid" - the taxi lagging behind its prey, all three parties in a half-block stagger - "it doesn't get any better than this."
"Actually, Benny Yee in Community Oureach? He says the Fooks finally know not to do that anymore, keep it all on them."
"Yeah, OK, they don't do that anymore."
"Should we tell the kid? He probably hasn't even heard of Benny Yee."
"I don't want to come between a young man and his dreams," Lugo says.
"There he goes, there he goes..."
"Forget it, he just made us," Daleys says as the kid abruptly loses his limp and turns east, back towards the projects, or the subways, or, like them, to simply take five, then get back in the game.
There you have it, hunters and hunted in the 'Noo Yawk' jungle. A terrific book and, praise the Lord, he has written several others!