It’s taking longer than I expected, but I’m talking about some of the books I’ve read and appreciated the most this past year. The majority were published in 2008 and a few were written by people I’ve had some contact with, whether e-mail or in person, but they’re here because I enjoyed them and I think you will, too.
Richard Price’s novel Lush Life opens with a “quality of life” police patrol, operating undercover in a converted taxi, monitoring traffic entering Manhattan from the Williamsburg Bridge and picking targets on the principle that anyone who obeys traffic regulations must be trying to avoid police attention:
The Quality of Life Task Force: four sweatshirts in a bogus taxi set up on the corner of Clinton Street alongside the Williamsburg Bridge off-ramp to profile the incoming 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 abreast of them at the Delancey Street light, the driver a tall, gray, long-nosed man sporting a tweed jacket and Cuffney cap.
“The Quiet Man,” Geohagan murmurs.
“That’ll do, pig,” Scharf adds.
Lugo, Daley, Geohagan, 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 tight right turns: falafel joint, jazz joint, gyro joint, corner. Schoolyard, crêperie, realtor, corner. Tenement, tenement, tenement museum, corner. Pink Pony, Blind 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 Fujianese 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 rearview. “Hunting for his Chinaman?”
“That’s who I’d do,” Scharf says.
“Guy looks beat. Probably 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 whole 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 better than this.”
“Actually, Benny Yee in Community Outreach? 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,” Daley 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.
Right turn after right turn after right, so many that when they finally pull someone over, and they will, it’ll take a minute to get their legs under them, to stop leaning into their steps; so many right turns that at three in the morning, six beers deep at Grouchie’s, everybody silently, angrily watching the one lucky bastard getting a lap ride in a banquette by the bathrooms, they’ll be canting to the right at the bar, then, later in bed, twitching to the right in their dreams.
At the corner of Houston and Chrystie, a cherry-red Denali pulls up alongside them, three overdressed women in the backseat, the driver alone up front and wearing sunglasses.
The passenger-side window glides down. “Officers, where the Howard Johnson hotel at around here …”
“Straight ahead three blocks on the far corner,” Lugo offers.
“What’s with the midnight shades?” Daley asks from the shotgun seat, leaning forward past Lugo to make eye contact.
“I got photosensitivity,” the guy answers, tapping his frames.
The window glides back up and he shoots east on Houston.
“Did he call us officers?”
“It’s that stupid flattop of yours.”
“It’s that fuckin’ tractor hat of yours.”
“I gots photosensitivity …”
A moment later they’re rolling past the Howard Johnson’s themselves, watching as the guy from the Denali makes like a coachman, holding the door for all the ladies filing out from the backseat.
“Huggy Bear,” Lugo mumbles.
“Who the fuck puts a Howard Johnson’s down here?” Scharf gestures to the seedy-looking chain hotel, its neighbors an ancient knishery and a Seventh-Day Adventist church whose aluminum cross is superimposed over a stone-carved Star of David. “What was the thinking behind that.”
“Twenty-eight flavors,” Lugo says. “My dad used to take me every Sunday after my game.”
“You’re talking the ice cream parlor,” Scharf says, “that’s different.”
“I never had a dad,” says Geohagan.
“You want one of mine?” Daley turns in his seat. “I had three.”
“I can only dream of a dad who’d take me to a Howard Johnson’s after my game.”
“Hey, Sonny.” Lugo catches Geohagan’s eye in the rearview. “Later tonight, you want to have a catch with me?”
“Pokey as fuck out here, huh?” says Daley.
“That’s because it’s your turn to collar,” Lugo says, waving off some drunk who thinks he’s just flagged down a taxi.
“Somebody up there hates me.”
“Hang on …” Scharf abruptly perks up, his head on a swivel. “That there looks good. High beams going west, four bodies.”
“Going west?” Lugo floors it in heavy traffic. “Think thin, girls,” as he takes the driver-side wheels up onto the concrete divider to get past a real cab waiting for the light, then whips into a U-turn to get abreast of the target car, peering in. “Females, two mommies, two kids,” passing them, hungrier now, all of them, then Scharf ahoying once again: “Green Honda, going east.”
“Now east, he says.” Lugo does another 180 and pulls behind the Honda.
“What do we got …”
“Two males in the front.”
“What do we got …”
“Neon trim on the plate.”
“Right rear taillight.”
“Front passenger just stuffed something under the seat.”
“Thank you.” Lugo hits the misery lights, climbs up the Honda’s back, the driver taking half a block to pull over.
Daley and Lugo slowly walk up on either side of the car, cross-beam the front seats.
The driver, a young green-eyed Latino, rolls down his window. “Officer, what I do?”
Lugo rests his crossed arms on the open window as if it’s a backyard fence. “License and registration, please?”
“For real, what I do?”
“You always drive like that?” His voice almost gentle.
“Signaling lane changes, all road-courteous and shit.”
“C’mon, nobody does that unless they’re nervous about something.”
“Well I was.”
“You was following me.”
“A cab was following you?”
“Yeah, OK, a cab.” Passing over his papers. “All serious, Officer, and no disrespect intended, maybe I can learn something here, but what did I do?”
“Primary, you have neon trim on your plates.”
“Hey, I didn’t put it there. This my sister’s whip.”
“Secondary, your windows are too dark.”
“I told her about that.”
“Tertiary, you crossed a solid yellow.”
“To get around a double-parked car.”
“Quadrary, you’re sitting by a hydrant.”
“That’s ’cause you just pulled me over.”
Lugo takes a moment to assess the level of mouth he’s getting.
As a rule he is soft-spoken, leaning in to the driver’s window to conversate, to explain, his expression baggy with patience, going eye to eye as if to make sure what he’s explicating here is being digested, seemingly deaf to the obligatory sputtering, the misdemeanors of verbal abuse, but … if the driver says that one thing, goes one word over some invisible line, then without any change of expression, without any warning signs except maybe a slow straightening up, a sad/disgusted looking off, he steps back, reaches for the door handle, and the world as they knew it, is no more.
But this kid isn’t too bad.
“This is for your own benefit. Get out of the car, please?”
As Lugo escorts the driver to the rear bumpers, Daley leans into the shotgun-seat window and tilts his chin at the passenger, this second kid sitting there affecting comatosity, heavy-lidded under a too big baseball cap and staring straight ahead as if they were still driving somewhere.
“So what’s your story?” Daley says, opening the passenger door, offering this one some sidewalk too, as Geohagan, all tatted out in Celtic braids, knots, and crosses leans in to search the glove compartment, the cup caddy, the tape storage bin, Scharf taking the rear seats.
Back at the rear bumpers, the driver stands in a scarecrow looking off soul-eyed as Lugo, squinting through his own cigarette smoke, fingerwalks his pockets, coming up with a fat roll of twenties.
“This a lot of cheddar, cuz,” counting it, then stuffing it in the kid’s shirt pocket before continuing the patdown.
“Yeah, well, that’s my college tuition money.”
“What the fuck college takes cash?” Lugo laughs, then finished, gestures to the bumper. “Have a seat.”
“Burke Technical in the Bronx? It’s new.”
“And they take cash?”
“True dat.” Lugo shrugs, just waiting out the car search. “So what’s your major?”
“You ever been locked up before?”
“C’mon, man, my uncle’s like a detective in the Bronx.”
“Like a detective?”
“No. A detective. He just retired.”
“Oh yeah? What precinct?”
“I don’t know per se. The Sixty-ninth?”
“The fighting Sixty-ninth,” Geohagan calls out, feeling under the passenger seat now.
“There is no Sixty-ninth,” Lugo says, flicking his butt into the gutter.
“Sixty-something. I said I wasn’t sure.”
“What’s his name.”
“Rodriguez in the Bronx? That narrows it down. What’s his first name?”
“Don’t know him.”
“Had a big retirement party?”
“I been thinking of trying out for the Police Academy myself.”
“Oh yeah? That’s great.”
“Donnie.” Geohagan backs out of the passenger door, holds up a Zip-loc of weed.
“Because we need more [expletive] smokehounds.”
The kid closes his eyes, tilts his chin to the stars, to the moon over Delancey.
“His or yours.” Lugo gestures to the other kid on the sidewalk, face still blank as a mask, his pockets strewn over the car hood. “Somebody needs to say or you both go.”
“Mine,” the driver finally mutters.
“Turn around, please?”
“Oh man, you gonna lock me up for that?”
“Hey, two seconds ago you stepped up like a man. Stay with that.”
Lugo cuffs him then turns him forward again, holding him at arm’s length as if to assess his outfit for the evening. “Anything else in there? Tell us now or we’ll rip that [expletive] to shreds.”
“Damn, man, I barely had that.”
“All right then, just relax,” guiding him back down to the bumper as the search continues nonetheless.
The kid looks off, shakes his head, mutters, “Sorry ass.”
“Nah, I’m just saying” — pursing his mouth in self-disgust — “not about you.”
Geohagan comes back with the baggie, hands it over.
“OK, look.” Lugo lights another cigarette, takes a long first drag. “This? We could give a fuck. We’re out here on a higher calling.” He nods at a passing patrol car, something the driver said making him laugh. “You know what I’m saying?”
“More serious shit?”
“There you go.”
“That’s all I got.”
“I’m not taking about what you got. I’m talking about what you know.”
“What I know?”
“You know what I’m saying.”
They both turn and look off in the direction of the East River, two guys having a moment, one with his hands behind his back.
Finally, the kid exhales heavily. “Well, I can tell you where a weed spot is.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Lugo rears back. “I’ll tell you where a weed spot is. I’ll tell you where fifty is. I can get you better [expletive] than this for half what you paid seven days a week with blindfolds on.”
The kid sighs, tries not to look at the barely curious locals coming out of the Banco de Ponce ATM center and the Dunkin’ Donuts, the college kids hopping in and out of taxis.
“C’mon. Do right by me, I’ll do right by you.” Lugo absently tosses the baggie from hand to hand, drops it, picks it up.
“Do right like how?”
“I want a gun.”
“A what? I don’t know a gun.”
“You don’t have to know a gun. But you know someone who knows someone, right?”
“Aw, man …”
“For starters, you know who you bought this shit from, right?”
“I don’t know any guns, man. You got forty dollars a weed there. I paid for it with my own money, ’cause it helps me relax, helps me party. Everybody I know is like, go to work, go to school, get high. That’s it.”
“Huh … so like, there’s no one you could call, say, ‘Yo, I just got jacked in the PJs. I need me a onetime whistle, can I meet you at such and such?'”
Lugo makes a finger gun.
“You mean a hammer?”
“A hammer, a whistle …” Lugo turns away and tightens his ponytail.
“Pfff …” The kid looks off, then, “I know a knife.”
Lugo laughs. “My mother has a knife.”
“This one’s used.”
“Forget it.” Then, chin-tilting to the other kid: “What about your sidekick there.”
“My cousin? He’s like half-retarded.”
“How about the other half?”
“Aw, c’mon.” The driver lolls his head like a cow.
Another patrol car rolls up, this one to pick up the prisoner.
“All right, just think about it, OK?” Lugo says. “I’ll see you back in holding in a few hours.”
“What about my car?”
“Gilbert Grape there, he’s got a license?”
“His brother does.”
“Well then tell him to call his brother and get his ass down here before you wind up towed.”
“Damn.” Then calling out: “Raymond! You hear that?”
The cousin nods but makes no move to retrieve his cell phone from the car hood.
“So you never answered my question,” Lugo says, skull-steering him into the rear of the cruiser. “You ever been locked up before?”
The kid turns his head away, murmurs something.
“It’s OK, you can tell me.”
“I said, ‘Yes.'”
The kid shrugs, embarrassed, says, “This.”
“Yeah? Around here?”
“How long back?”
“On Christmas Eve.”
“On Christmas Eve for this?” Lugo winces. “That is cold. Who the hell would … You remember who collared you?”
“Uh-huh,” the kid mutters, then looks Lugo in the face. “You.”
Readers who know Richard Price as a writer and occasional actor on the HBO series The Wire may conclude that Lush Life reflects that background, but the truth is that Price has been building his novels on a foundation of crime since Clockers, the 1992 epic that arrested his career spiral from wunderkind to has-been, and his ear for dialogue and skill at close sociological observation were evident in The Wanderers, the 1974 debut that earned him the wunderkind title. So you could say Richard Price had already earned his spot on The Wire, before the series was even a gleam on his computer screen.
Lush Life is ostensibly about the investigation of a robbery that turns into a murder, but the real subject is the weave of ethnic, class and economic cross-currents on the Lower East Side. The change of scene from the urban New Jersey setting of Clockers, Freedomland and Samaritan is welcome; Samaritan felt as though Price had not so much written a novel as bulldozed a mass of research along a vaguely mapped-out storyline. That same sense of notebook-dumping is also present to a lesser extent in Lush Life, but whenever the mass of accumulated observations threatens to weigh him down, Price leaps over it with a crackling stretch of dialogue or brilliantly rendered scene.
And yet, as much as I enjoyed the book, Lush Life left me with the same feeling I had after reading The Breaks: that Price has reached another artistic crossroads, and it will be very interesting to see where he goes next.