Review: “Lush Life”

Richard Price’s novel Lush Life is the story of Eric Cash, who is having a very bad week. In fact, Eric’s life hasn’t been going all that well in general lately.

Eric is the quintessential disaffected New York thirtysomething. He fancies himself a screenwriter, but the only thing he has going is a work-for-hire project that he knows is crap. In real life he manages a hipster bar for his money, which he spends on an apartment that he shares with a girlfriend who may or may not be coming back from an overseas research trip for her master’s thesis on fringe sexuality. Each day makes Eric more aware of the rut into which he’s sunk, as he watches disaffected New Yorkers a decade his junior landing the breaks he feels he deserves. And to make matters worse, one of his coworkers has just been shot, and Eric is the only witness. Or is he the only suspect?

That’s the setup for what feels like less a crime novel than a snapshot of urban life in the 21st century. This is my first novel by Price (his most famous being Clockers), but I know his work as one of the writers for the excellent HBO series The Wire. If you like The Wire, there’s a fair chance you’ll like this. Price successfully transfers the grit and crackle of that show’s dialogue to the printed page, and he spares the reader none of The Wire’s world-weary pessimism about social institutions.

In fact, this book pushes the envelope of The Wire’s criticism of police departments, to the point that you’re almost forced to the conclusion that cops are irredeemably corrupt, bungling incompetents. Having grown up in a suburb full of bored cops I can certainly empathize with this point of view, but I can’t say that the emotions inspired by Price’s portrait of police ineptitude made me feel very good.

And that’s the thing. For all its bile, The Wire is buoyed by the sense that its creators are actually engaged in some kind of quixotic bid for social change. There’s a humanistic element in the show — not redemptive, exactly, but a quality that’s strangely uplifting. I can’t say the same about Lush Life. It’s hardly a tragedy, but it leaves us off pretty much where we got on. What are we to make of that? Is it enough for a novel to offer us a goldfish-bowl view of modern life and say, “That’s the way it is, folks!” Who is the intended audience of this book, and what are they meant to take away from it?

The copy I borrowed from the library may offer a clue. A past reader saw fit to decorate the margins of the early pages with little handwritten notes — in pencil, presumably so it can’t be said that he or she is actually defacing the book — offering commentary for subsequent readers. “Price’s dialogue is delicious,” reads one, “but you have be high IQ [sic] or an intellectual to talk like this. Really!” (Don’t we all know it.) Another explains, “I don’t think one would notice what’s going on on the other side of the street,” while a third advises, “Witnesses are notoriously unreliable!”

Yeah. I guess years of watching CSI has made our commentator an expert on police procedure, not to mention second-guessing what might happen after page 74. Is this the audience for books like this — smug, middle-class white people who like to read stories about crime and urban blight so they can seem worldly and street-smart at parties? People whose narcissistic scribbles trail off after page 100, so we never find out if they even finished the book?

I have a nagging suspicion that the answer is yes. Price doesn’t strike me as any kind of true urban insider. His hamfisted attempts at rap lyrics — one of his characters likes to “write beats” in a notebook — are so sad that it’s obvious he’s never listened to a minute of hip-hop in his life. From his photo on the inside back cover I’d peg him for a Steely Dan man, or maybe Stevie Ray Vaughan: blue music for white people whose tragic ennui transports them to the darkest corners of the neighborhoods where they dwell in their sullen souls — just not in real life, because they have too much money for that.

Lush Life is an entertaining read, and Price is one hell of a wordsmith, but it feels somehow empty. When it’s all over we’re left with little choice but to just take it as read. If you agree with Price’s point of view, you’ll feel satisfied. If you don’t, then you’ll take it like all the other unfathomable people and situations you pass on the street every day, and just move on.