By Richard Price
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
Set in Manhattan’s historic Lower East Side, Richard Price’s gripping detective novel, Lush Life is the story of the cops and the two different classes-hipsters and street kids-who work and live in the area.
The story centers on the tragic death of Ike Marcus, a bartender at Café Berkmann, a trendy neighborhood restaurant, and Eric Cash, an unsettled aspiring actor and screenwriter. On a late night/early morning drunken tour of all the local watering holes, Eric, Ike, and Steven Boulware, are approached by two Hispanic young men, demanding their wallets. The outing ends with Ike’s last words, “Not tonight, my man” and with a gun shot.
At least that’s how it’s told to the cops, but then come Cash’s own discrepancies, and entirely different accounts of the event told by nearby witnesses. It’s at this point that Detective Matty Clark and his partner Yolanda Bello attempt to unravel the truth from an exhausted Cash, questioning and holding him at the precinct for a number of hours.
Although, both Clark and Bello are convinced that Cash is lying about his role, Clark attempts to get a paraffin test to determine and confirm Cash was indeed the shooter. After a series of frustrating phone-calls up the chain of command within the police unit, Clark is constantly put-off and the paraffin test never occurs. Ultimately, Cash is held for the murder of Marcus-and then everything falls apart. The other eyewitness testimony is inaccurate. Cash is set free and it’s Clark’s and Bello’s job to find the shooter.
Lush Life is a rich tale of haves and have-nots. Price vividly describes the young, privileged middle-class kids who come in droves to Manhattan’s new real-estate hot spot and spend their evenings dining and bar-hopping from trendy to trendier establishments. While the other half, project kids, spend their time, hanging out in front of their buildings or roaming the streets, not straying too far from the ‘hood.
Each character–including the dead Ike and peripheral ones like Matty’s two boorish sons–is beautifully fleshed out. The reader sees this on every page, from Bello’s sympathetic questioning of project kid Tristan to Matty’s increasing frustration with his commanding officer and Ike’s father, Billy Marcus. With the Marcus family, Price poignantly captures their anguish and attempts to cope with Ike’s death.
A master in dialogue, Price creates realistic and rapid exchanges. Each sentence uttered takes the reader further into the world of the Lower East Side and into the heads of each character. As for descriptions of the neighborhood, Price writes a worthy travelogue of the area. Residents and former residents will nod their heads in approval that Price hasn’t whitewashed the neighborhood in spite of developers’ attempts of flagrant gentrification.
Lush Life is intoxicating. It grabs readers from its first pages to its final ones. It is life on the Lower East Side as it is with its wannabe Bohos, cops, and project kids.