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December 30, 2008

Lush Life by Richard Price

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard notes, “The printed word cannot compete with the movies on their ground, and should not… [So w]hy would anyone read a book instead of watching people moving on a screen? Because a book can be literature. It is a subtle thing– a poor thing, but our own.”

So then how would Dillard contend with the recent fashionable claim that movies or television can be literature too? Is their “thing” just as subtle? What would she make of Richard Price, whose novels have been made into movies, who has written screenplays of his own, and is a noted writer of the television show The Wire?

But as Deborah Friedell remarks in her LRB review of Price’s latest novel Lush Life, “writing for the screen also seems to have given [Price] the enthusiasm of an outsider: his novels delight in being novels.” Which is Dillard’s “subtle thing”; that it is language and not spectacle used to tell the story here. However cinematic and paced Price’s writing might be, this effect is created through careful attention and deftness with words and not by a trick of a camera.

So why would anyone read a book, particularly one so decidedly steeped in a world we know from film, instead of watching people move on a screen? For the love of language first, of course, but also for the experience of ten or twelve hours entrenched in the story. And the experience of re-imagining the scene from words on a page, so that the act of reading becomes one of creation. Particularly the creation of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where I’ve never been before, but from Price’s narrative I can decipher the points on its map. The part of New York City as much a character in the story as anybody else, Price plumbing its depths sometimes quite literally, whether historically and topographically.

Though I was completely lost during the first fifty pages of the novel– in unfamiliar geography, references, a language in which I’m decidedly unschooled. I persevered because the novel’s premise continued to intrigue me so– three young somebodies (if even in their own minds) robbed by two characters they identify solely by their race. One victim too drunk to stand and falls apart, the second handing over in wallet in sheer terror, but the third, Ike Marcus, who “walks around starring in the movie of his own life,” steps to his assailant saying, “Not tonight, my man.” And then he’s shot dead.

But as the novel progressed, I found my way into it eased. Going back to reread the beginning (by which I am imploring you to follow it through), I made more sense of it all. As suspicion is cast upon Marcus’s companion that night, Eric Cash, the thirty-something restaurant manager who “had no particular talent or skill, or what was worse, he had a little talent, some skill…” In a world where everybody is trying to become something else, Cash is old enough to realize he might never succeed, and bitter enough to find Ike Marcus’s confidence more than irritating.

What follows is more than just a police procedural as detectives investigate Marcus’s murder. The narrative shifting point of view from Cash himself, the police involved, to Tristan, a young black teenager who lives in one of the neighbourhood’s surrounding housing projects and writes hip hop poetry in his notebook. The juxtaposition of Cash and Marcus’s lifestyle with Tristan’s in such close proximity is as jarring as its meant to be, though for its commonalities as much as the differences.

Lush Life could be a movie but it isn’t, and as a movie it would still be something very different. In the meantime then taking full advantage of its literary-ness– the effects of language, depth of character, such a scope. Demonstrating that their very own way, books are as capable as movies of extraordinary things.

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