“I need to be ever present.”
Midway through Freedomland – the second of Richard Price’s three novels set in the fictional New Jersey city Dempsey – an ambitious local reporter scrutinizes the apartment of a mother grieving over the disappearance of her young son. The journalist runs her hand over ‘tapes, posters, tabletops, dishes’ for the ‘tactile connection’ they provide to the woman she’s studying. ‘She thought of all reporters,’ the novel goes on to say, as people
‘who were addicted to something she thought of as the Infilling – the compulsive hankering to witness, to absorb, to taste human behavior in extremis; the desire to embrace, to be filled with, no matter how fleetingly, the power of human grief; human rage; to experience it over and over; to absorb the madness of others, the commitment of others, the killers, the killed, the bereaved, the stunned, the liars, the fuckers, the heroes, the clownish, and the helpless. Jesse needed these people to come inside her, to give her life, a life, and she loved them for it.’
‘The compulsive hankering to witness’ would be a good description for the impulse that gives energy to Price’s nine novels and his numerous scripts for film and TV. Born in the Bronx in 1949, he studied at Cornell University and in the writing program at Columbia University. By the time he graduated from the latter in 1974, when he was 24, he had already published his first book of fiction, The Wanderers, a portrait of young gang members in a Bronx housing project much like the one in which he grew up.
There followed three fast-talking novels of New York – Bloodbrothers (1976), Ladies’ Man (1978), and The Breaks (1983) – each about a man for whom the city, as the novelist Michael Chabon put it, ‘demarcates the upper limit of what he can imagine and the depth to which he can sink.’ Burned-out after this run of productivity and struggling with a debilitating cocaine habit, Price withdrew from novel writing, accepted an offer to compose the script for Martin Scorsese pool hall drama The Color of Money in 1986, and took up a second career as a screenwriter.
It was during these years writing for the movies that Price developed something of a reporter’s urge to take ‘a life’ from other people and examine the fault lines between them – ’the killers, the killed, the bereaved.’ The three Dempsey novels that followed – Clockers (1992), Freedomland (1998), and Samaritan (2003) – emerged out of close engagement with people at work in Jersey City: cops; cocaine dealers; teachers; detectives; housing project residents struggling to go about their lives unharassed. Race became a dominant subject.
Each novel shuttles back and forth between two juxtaposed central figures, one white and one black: a homicide cop and a drug-corner lieutenant (Clockers); the mother who’s lost her son and the detective on the hunt for him (Freedomland); a daft, altruistic classroom volunteer and the female officer who takes up his case after he gets severely beaten (Samaritan).
Price has often been praised as a peerless writer of dialogue. His ear for the rhythms of human speech is on fine display in TV shows such as The Night Of – which he co-created with Steven Zaillian – and The Wire, which he started writing for after the show drew heavily on Clockersfor inspiration about the workings of the street-level drug trade. But the Dempsey novels and the two New York-set studies of crime and punishment that followed them, Lush Life (2008) and The Whites (2015), confirmed that he was just as skilled a writer of place, locale, and décor. To read Price is to be immersed in the texture and trappings of successive layers of urban life—to absorb, from how people talk, dress, and make their homes, what they need and resent about the cities they inhabit.
He has always been a fastidious chronicler of specific New York neighborhoods as they transform under new influxes of capital and real estate. There are the seedy Times Square sex clubs where the hero of Ladies’ Man takes refuge, or the swiftly gentrifying, patchwork Lower East Side in Lush Life where the paths of bartenders, dealers, and cops collide. His next novel is set in Harlem, where he shares a brownstone with his wife, the journalist and fiction writer Lorraine Adams. It was there that I met Price. Our conversation kept returning to the neighborhood, its future, and that of New York itself. Price’s characters, too, rarely keep themselves from speaking their mind about where they live. ‘I hate this fuckin’ city,’ one says about Dempsey in Freedomland. ‘This city’s got no heart.’