Monday, August 31, 2009

Lush Life

The ability to write convincing dialogue might be the most important thing that I require from an author. After being spoiled by William Gaddis, Richard Yates, Richard Ford, and a host of others with the skill, I tend to judge poor dialogue very harshly. Clunky conversations can make or break a novel for me. So it was with great pleasure that I discovered the incredible Richard Price, and his most recent novel, Lush Life.

Ike Marcus, a waiter in New York, is shot dead on a random street, and the only witness is struggling writer Eric Cash, who may or may not be telling the truth when he's interrogated by Detective Matty Clark. Billy Marcus, Ike's father, hounds the police in a seemingly Sysphean effort to have this unfathomable murder solved. Using the parallel narratives of Matty and Eric, the novel traces the investigation of the murder, and the emotional and sociological fallout. 

The plot of this novel is thin, but that doesn't matter really. The star of this work is the absolutely brilliant dialogue. Pages upon pages of perfect, nuanced, clever, and most importantly real dialogue wash over the reader, creating a portrait of New York, circa 2008. It's a story about the neighbourhood, and every little character, and every little detail is shown to us, efficiently and vividly. 

Price's eye for detail and character and ear for dialogue is unmatched by contemporaries. I can't say enough about how he manages to make every single sentence sound real. Not only that, but it's enjoyable to read. This isn't just a bunch of conversations about nothing. For these characters in this borough, the stakes have never been higher. 

When we reach the inevitable and realistic climax, the audience isn't taken aback or thrown for a loop. It reveals itself in a logical and rhythmic manner. It's all about beats, in terms of speaking, and in terms of plot. Price's background as a screenwriter helps him create a structure to hang the plot on, and the same training helps him create the dialogue to move that forward.

I keep harping on the dialogue, but for good reason. Richard Price is well known for his attention to detail. When doing research, the man has gone on ride-alongs with the police. He spends years researching and picking up little stories and little details that go into his novels.

One of the reasons why his characters stand out, even the ones non-essential to the plot, are the fact that Price lays them out so vividly so quickly. He sketches them in very few paragraphs and they stick with you. I can still remember Billy Marcus and Eric Cash, and I read Lush Life back in February of this year. Not to mention the other Price novels I read, many characters within that I can still picture, or remember their details. Many authors pray they could sketch a fully realized character as quickly as Price does, or even as Scott Smith does, the writer of A Simple Plan and The Ruins. It's an envious skill.

While Lush Life isn't the deepest or most insightful, and while it doesn't stand up beside the great sociological realist novels, it's an excellent work, worthy of attention, just like Price is telling us these people in this borough are worthy of our attention. His uncanny ear for dialogue, and masterful skill with plotting, make Lush Life an entertaining and breezy read. 

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