As a novelist, forty-nine-year-old Richard Price speaks for the nonspeaking. In Clockers (1992), he rendered the drug trade in a midsize city in New Jersey—Dempsy—and did so from the viewpoints of both the disenchanted police and the down- but-not-quite-out crack dealers. In his acclaimed first novel, The Wanderers (1974), he gave voice to working-class Bronx teenagers locked into dead-end lives. “I want to create an awareness that certain people exist,” he told an interviewer. “Let me just put them on paper so the reader can see who they are.” In Freedomland, his sixth and most ambitious novel, Price goes to extraordinary lengths to make good on his imperative to let readers see. What the reader sees—what Price shows—are lives lived at nerve-end torpor.
Drawing on a common practice of such contemporaries as Don DeLillo and Tom Wolfe, the author finds his basic scenario in recent headlines. In 1994, Susan Smith told police in a South Carolina town that an African American carjacker had abducted her two sons. Later, she confessed that she had drowned the boys by pushing her car, with them in it, into a lake. The deep human interest that is inherent in the Susan Smith story—its catalog of horrors, including child murder, domestic abuse, and racism— could not help but have given Richard Price a catalyst. However, what he extracts from this tabloid material he elaborates into a fictive world that he claims as his alone. In a prologue that is suggestive but in no way derivative of the opening of Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), a thin figure (later to be entered formally on a police blotter as “female, 32, Caucasian, disoriented”) makes her way to the butt end of Hurley, the main street of a Dempsy, New Jersey, housing project. As she approaches, then passes, two young men, frozen “in postures of alert curiosity,” taunt her (“bitch on a mission”) but in no way impede her progress to the emergency room of Dempsy Medical Center.
For all but the final hundred of Freedomland’s 546 pages, it is indeed Brenda Martin’s skewed “mission” that the reader follows. She tells the attending doctor, a project-assimilated East Indian, and, later, Lorenzo “Big Daddy” Council, a black detective who is the novel’s hero, that she was the victim of a carjacking by a black man and that her four-year-old son, Cody, was in the back seat when her car was stolen.
The reader does not require the tedious tracking-down of clues by the novel’s two “reflector” characters to doubt Brenda’s story. As Francine Prose noted in an otherwise glowing review in The New York Times, Price leaves his readers morally adrift as he provides Brenda with monotonous replies to vital inquiries about her son and the putative kidnapper. For long stretches, Brenda resides in a heartland of ambiguity where the reader might expect at least once to hear her rail against the carjacker. Brenda, though, seems to prefer that the phantom abductor the cops call the “actor” remain in limbo.
So does Lorenzo. Assigned to watch Brenda, he senses her relief whenever the news on Cody and the mystery carjacker amounts to no news. “Nonetheless, he recommitted himself to breaking her down, to maintaining a one-prong mind-set on this.” What really attracts him to Brenda, fifteen years his junior, is not sexual but something more complex: empathy and the belief that no one escapes his or her history. Lorenzo and Brenda are both products of the area; he is an eight-years-sober alcoholic, she is a drug addict. Her son is missing, his in jail.
The other sensibility, on which Brenda’s agony plays like the tuning of a fine instrument, belongs to Jesse Haus, a white female reporter for the Dempsy Register who had grown up in Dempsy, where her family, among the project’s last white residents, still lives.
Jesse, in fact, is so taken by Brenda that José, her editor, wonders...
(The entire section is 1639 words.)