Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Price’s first four novels drew extensively on his early life in the Bronx. His fifth, Clockers (also set in Dempsy), was something of a departure in its even grittier depiction of New Jersey drug dealers and police officers and in its being researched at firsthand rather than remembered. Clockers was also more cinematic than the earlier work, clearly influenced by Price’s writing of a number of high-profile screenplays: The Color of Money (1986), The Sea of Love (1989), “Life Lessons” (1989), and Ransom (1996). Far from limiting its effectiveness, the fact that Freedomland reads like a screenplay contributes to it, leading one to suspect that, as with Clockers, no film adaptation can begin to do justice to this hybridized novel’s effective pacing, complex narration, and sympathetic but unsentimental tone. Equally important is the way the novel resonates with well-known news stories that Price recycles to telling effect, most notably the 1992 Charles Stuart case in Boston and the 1994 Susan Smith case in Union, South Carolina. In both those real-life cases, white accusers put the blame for murders they had committed (Stuart of his pregnant wife, Smith of her two young children) on black men who then became the subject of police manhunts. Price’s highly descriptive yet strangely meditative detective novel goes beyond the sensationalism of tabloid headlines to offer understanding and forgiveness, along with a glimmer of hope amid Darktown’s grim reality. Jesse Haus, for example, decides to stay in Dempsy rather than to accept a job offer in Arizona. Despite misgivings, moreover, Lorenzo Council decides to direct a curfew program for the city’s youth. As he says, and as the novel argues, “You do what you can do . . . that’s all you can do.”