Sunday, September 07, 2008

Book Review: LES Edition

In honor of my trip to New York (and the reading time it gave me on the plane), I am writing a review of my newest Kindle completion, Richard Price's Lush Life. I first heard about this book on NPR's excellent program Studio 360. I don't typically dig crime novels that much, but I was intrigued by the way Price (the author of novels like Clockers and The Wanderers) described the way the Lower East Side functioned as the main character in the novel intrigued me, so I gave it a go.

The book centers around the murder of Ike Marcus, an aspiring actor/artist who tends bar on the Lower East Side. The real story, though, is about taking apart the Lower East Side as an example of the way gentrification operates and the way a few blocks in New York can contain more stories than an entire city. He paints vivid portraits of the different groups that make up those few blocks, from the cops to the trust fund kids to the project folks. He also examines how these groups see each other and react to each other in surprising and unexpected ways. He is a master of capturing the essence of a city.

While the plot is obviously not the point of a Richard Price novel, he does a great job of making the reader care about how the investigation into the murder develops. The story never becomes overbearing or goes off track, and he artfully uses it to reveal his characters. They jump off the page. In fact, there are too many characters for the story to hold. I found myself wanting to know more and more about characters incidental to the plot, and if there's one criticism that I have of the book it's that the supporting cast sometimes shine too brightly and take focus away from the main characters. It's not a bad problem to have.

Nostalgia works in very interesting ways. When I read books or see movies about New York, I often yearn for my days as a New Yorker. Each one accomplishes that differently. Winter's Tale makes me remember New York as a city of possibilities, even possibilities beyond the realm of logic. The Professional reveals the city as a jungle and playground for those willing to risk. Lush Life may be the first one to make me yearn for New York without sugarcoating it at all. Get it and savor it.