19.5.08

"Goldeneh Medina" - Richard Price's "Lush Life"

"What we have here now is bars and college students vomiting on the streets. Nothing will rise out of it. It's all vacuous and lacking substance. When I go out my door now, I don't see anyone I know. I see the loss of a community." This is Clayton Patterson's take on Manhattan's Lower East Side in a 2005 interview with The NY Times. It is an opinion of the neighborhood that Richard Price's new novel, "Lush Life," might share.

Like Price's other heavy-hitter novels, like "Clockers," "Lush Life" uses a criminal investigation - a murder investigation - as the story's backbone. A trio of two friends and one acquiantance stumble home from a night of vomiting up alcohol on LES sidewalks when they are confronted by an improv stick-up duo from the nearby Lemlichs projects. One of the three, Ike Marcus, steps to the project boys with a "not tonight, my man." Bap. "Death By Mouth."

The rest of the story teases out the murder investigation set against a backdrop of young, educated hopes and dreams, 30-year old realizations of failure, the desperate, no-aim energy of young black and hispanic project life, and the dissintegrating grime of Clayton Patterson's Lower East Side. The frustrated New York Police Department holds all the cards, and none at the same time in "Lush Life." They are a club wielded by a public opinion that, as soon as it strikes its target, seems to let go and regard the weapon quizically with no regard for the hand that guided it.

Clayton Patterson said of his documentary, "Captured," that captured 30-years of LES history: "It's not an archive of the rich and cool. It's about the tragic, glorious, sometimes depressing history of the Lower East Side." Price's "Lush Life," unlike "Captured," takes that history of the Lower East Side and smashes it up against the "archive of the rich and cool." This struggle is the subtext of "Lush Life" and it is the book's motor. The only real direct confrontation of those two worlds is Marcus' murder. Beyond that, both spheres are warily aware of the other; one arrogant and dismissive, the other resentful and clueless of the forces bumping against their borders.

Nobody wins or loses in this push and shove, people just get hurt in different ways. The young and upwardly mobile gain ground, lose perspective (if they had any to begin with). The young and hopeless are pushed against, will be removed to some outer-borough eventually, but are already at rock bottom, have nowhere further to drop. The only thing that comes out worse in the end is Patterson's neighborhood.

Cafe Berkmann, a bar central to the action of "Lush Life" which is a clear stand-in for the real-life LES hip-spot, Schiller's, is the neighborhood's time capsule. Its basement is littered with century and a half old hearths where Jewish immigrants once huddled for warmth, carved their names into the hefty wooden I-beams that were the four-foot high ceilings of their lives, and became the subjects of Jacob Riis photography. Upstairs is the dining room of the beautiful and young, where 30 is well-past over the hill. Everyone on the verge of sex, high on each other, about to be great.

"Lush Life" is part of a giant sigh that the LES has been exhaling for years. Its breath is short, and when it's out, the contributions of Price and Patterson will join the work of people like Jacob Riis in the archives of a neighborhood stomped, crushed, and distorted by arrogance and entitlement.

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