Richard Price’s novel Lush Life is a messy brawl of a crime story; diffuse, overlong, ambiguous and vexing, the book is, in short, a perfect fictional mirror for contemporary New York City. Price’s story deals with the fallout of a random murder on the Lower East Side: Two young black men from the nearby projects attempt a stickup of three barhopping hipsters, which goes awry when one of the victims resists in a burst of misplaced bravado. The ensuing investigation blows a huge hole in the lives of everyone involved, from cops to families to friends to assailants.
The first third of the book, dealing with the murder and its immediate aftermath, is a tight and exhilarating piece of writing. When the leads fizzle and the investigation stalls, however, the narrative loses some of its momentum as police, witnesses and suspects settle in for an enervating waiting game. Price is a canny and observant writer — his dialogue snaps and snarls with the profane rhythms of everyday speech — and he has a pitiless sense of social geography. One sequence in particular, a depiction of a vigil organized by the dead boy’s friend, is such a cruelly accurate portrayal of the fatuousness of the young bohemians invading the neighborhood that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cringe. Price, whose most recent busman’s holiday was scriptwriting for The Wire, has a nose for the inner workings of urban life: fiction verité at its finest.
What makes Lush Life so potent a read, despite its flaws, is that it upends the tidy certainties of most crime fiction, substituting a more real and jaggedly uncertain narrative. The cops on the case are hamstrung by bureaucratic inertia; the murdered boy’s father is deranged with grief; the survivor is unhinged by guilt and resentment; and the man who pulled the trigger is not some evil psychopath but a numb, confused kid. The book’s ending implies a nearly classical fatalism about the relentless cycling of history, personal and urban. As in life, tragedies explode and fade, lives crumble and renew, and the city moves on.