Richard Price’s Samaritan

Richard Price is the author of Clockers and has also written film scripts (e.g. The Color of Money) and episodes for the Wire. I was going to check out his much-praised new one, Lush Life, but in the NY Review of Books Michael Chabon said that it was a slight let-down after Samaritan (which he calls one of Price’s two masterpieces along with Clockers), so I decided to start there. It has a mystery plot, with an unsolved crime and a policewoman looking into it: the sometime t.v. writer, former cokehead cab-driver Ray Mitchell lies in a hospital bed, floating in and out of consciousness. When he’s conscious, he won’t say who bashed in his head, although he seems to have at least some idea. The plot develops in two temporal strands, one leading to the act of violence, the other one a couple months later following the investigation, mostly at the hands of Nerese Ammons, a pudgy African-American cop who used to go to school in a tough neighborhood in New Jersey with Ray (who is white).

I won’t explain the plot in detail, but the novel plays out its epigraph: ”When thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.” It’s all about white guilt, privilege and shame in the face of the lack of opportunity, violence, and hopelessness in the inner city. (Although note that one of the quotations below questions how fundamental race is to the dynamic.) Ray has a few hundred thousand dollars left over from a stint writing for a t.v. show about an inner-city highschool much like the one he attended. The story begins with Ray’s impulsive act of generosity in giving an old neighborhood acquaintance several thousand dollars to pay for the funeral of her son, an O.D. From there we begin to realize that Ray has a compulsion to be a samaritan, to give away money, to try to help the needy people around him, and that this compulsion has all kinds of unresolved baggage, about which he is only partly self-aware. I saw that Michiko Kakutani criticized the novel as overly-schematic and insistent in this theme, but I found it compelling, Ray’s out-of-control desire to use his wealth to “console” and heal and to absolve him of all kinds of guilt and bad feeling with origins that are both personal/ psychological and sociological/structural. And perhaps to get “glory” for his “alms.” I’d guess that there’s at least something autobiographical in the novel’s representation of a former-addict t.v. writer who has become (relatively) rich and famous through gritty portrayals of the disenfranchised, an implicitly/potentially exploitative situation that leaves him confused and guilty.

Price is really great at dialogue, at delineating character with concise details, and at immersing the reader in a vivid consciousness: here, mostly Ray’s but also Nerese’s. The book has the form of a mystery novel but is much less about the plot than psychology and sociology. It’s hard to think of too many other contemporary fictions aside from the Wire and novels by George Pelacanos (who also writes for the Wire) that are this good and sharp in the depiction of race & class and interracial friendship and relationships. I was going to say “this good and comfortable” but of course “comfortable” is not quite the right word for Price’s depiction of race.

“Ray felt it lurch to life in him, the slightly suspect desire to give, to do, and attempted to police it, convert it into mere words of advice”(181).

This is Nerese, the cop: “the constant black-white casting made her uncomfortable — no, made her angry; but that anger was tempered by the intuition that this compulsion in him wasn’t really about race; that the element of race, the chronic hard times and neediness of poor blacks and Latinos was primarily a convenience here, the schools and housing projects of Dempsy and other places like a stocked pond in which he could act out his selfish selflessness over and over whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself, and that he was so driven by this need, so swept away by it, that he would heedlessly, helplessly risk his life to see it played out each and every time”(215).

“the all too familiar urge to give something… something, some gift” (315); “Ray found himself burning with the desire to give this kid something both enduring and in some way consoling”(335)

The novel could be interesting to think about in a longer historical framework, considering the racial and class dynamics of charity, benevolence, and “gratitude.” (See Don Quixote’s book on the latter.) Nick Hornby’s How to be Good is definitely schematic and not really a great novel but is also kind of interesting on these issues.