When many authors pen "ambitious" novels, they overstuff their books with infinitesimal details about arcane subjects that they've recently become expert in. Whether ticking off the contents of a vagabond magician's bag of tricks, or painting tableaux of whaling boat mess halls, some are so eager to show off their savant-y knowledge that readers have to wonder if the writer learned anything in the course of his research that didn't make the book's final edit.
Richard Price, on the other hand, betrays his cellular familiarity with the Lower East Side in Lush Life, his riveting eighth novel, without once sounding like he's broken a sweat. Price is the ultimate New York tour guide, possessed with nuanced understandings of Manhattan's street corners, dialects, police procedures, immigrant sweatshops, and racial tensions, all of which are employed, flourish-free, in Lush Life.
The story orbits a late-night murder: After a night of drinking, writer-turned-restaurant-manager Eric Cash trudges home with two acquaintances. When one is gunned down, Eric claims they were mugged, but two "eyewits" tell the cops he's lying. Price doesn't keep the truth from his readers, but instead explores the personal, criminal, and racial fallout from the conflicting versions of events.
Price was a writer for The Wire, and fans of HBO's gritty, operatic crime show will love this book. Price's fluent grasp of police procedure is devastating. Lush Life's strongest moment comes right after the murder: Price devotes 30 pages to the activities of one patch of sidewalk as Detective Matty Clark tries to get a handle on the ensuing chaos. Without leaving the block, Price details a microcosm of gut instincts, lies, and social complexity within the touchy Lower East Side. Price follows this with 80 pages on Detective Clark's first sleepless 24 hours on the case, and the prose is as pounding and rich as anything you can imagine.
The last novel that kept me reading under the covers so late into the night was Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Both falling under the cloak of pulpy genre writing, each is written with a mastery of craft and sharpened philosophical inquiry, matched only by the breathtaking intensity of protagonists trapped in a tightening vice.