Lush Life

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Lush Life by Richard Price is not only an exploration of the diverse characters affected by a robbery-gone-wrong on New York City’s Lower East Side but also an exploration of the contemporary nature of the area itself, in which upscale young people have been uneasily braided into the neighborhood’s earlier identity as an urban ghetto. Price takes full advantage of the satiric potential for this social phenomenon, depicting new would-be artists in the neighborhood as living in a protected bubble that not only insulates them from the darker realities around them but also makes their very obliviousness one of the neighborhood’s darkest realities. The bars and boutiques that cater to the privileged youngsters seem to blind them to the downmarket bodegas and housing projects that surround them; the surreal absurdity of this rich-man, poor-man setting is made more striking by the heartless arrogance of the young hipsters, demonstrated especially by Ike Marcus, the young would-be writer whose murder by a stressed-out young Latino sets the narrative in motion.

The tragedy occurs in the early morning hours, when, after a night of drinking, Ike is helping home his inebriated friend, Steven Boulware. Along for the ride is Eric Cash, who had recently hired Ike as the new bartender for the trendy restaurant he manages for successful businessman Harry Steele. When the stumblebum trio are approached by two young Latinos, Ike’s glib, high-handed manner does not shut the situation down, as perhaps it would in a Hollywood film in which he imagines he has been cast as the hero; instead, his response triggers the violence.

Ike’s fatal arrogance is anticipated by an important previous episode, involving what appears to be the image of the Virgin Mary in the mist on a bodega’s refrigerator door. When business at Steele’s restaurant is threatened by the crowd attracted to this apparition, Eric and Ike are dispatched to take care of it. While Eric surprises himself by hanging back, Ike unhesitatingly allows a bit of warm air to dissolve the Madonna; an unbeliever himself, he has no respect for the tradition or the culture of those to whom this image mattered. This episode also suggests he has little respect for boundaries; he is never aware of when he is crossing the line. The devastation of this impromptu icon anticipates Ike’s future run-in, and it is prefigured by the site of a recently collapsed synagogue Eric and Ike barely register on their way to the bodega. That Ike’s grandparents once attended such a synagogue has no impact on Ike, who has no connection to his family’s traditions or to the history of the immigrants who once populated the Lower East Side.

The endemic cluelessness of the privileged young is also demonstrated at Ike’s memorial service, orchestrated by his media-savvy friend Steven. After a medley of pop songs, the service allows Ike’s friends to unwittingly reveal in their eulogies both their own narcissism as well as that of the deceased. Steven ends the service by dancing in the streets in a state of near-ecstasy, making an impression that is less sacred than profane or perhaps simply hollow and meretricious.

While Ike and his friends appear largely free of guilt and anguish, there are those in the novel who do undergo crises of conscience. The primary soul-searcher is Eric Cash, an older and more jaded version of the younger artistic types around him. Eric is at first suspected of murdering Ike, not only because of misleading circumstantial evidence but also because of the self-loathing that has overtaken him as a result of his feeling that he has done nothing...

(This entire section contains 1882 words.)

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of value in his life.

The turning point for Eric comes after the murder of Ike, when he is briefly a suspect and is subjected to a searing, lengthy interrogation by detective Matty Clark and his partner Yolonda, an experience that breaks down every illusion by which Eric had been able to continue to live on the Lower East Side. When Matty describes Eric as little more than a selfish, self-pitying, envious, and cowardly failure, who would not be above an enraged and resentful murder of chance acquaintance Ike, Eric is devastated. Now thirty-five, Eric realizes he must accept the end of his youth and the promise of his literary ambitions; furthermore, he sees the hipster downtown life as one that simply allows him to lie to himself about who he is and what he has become.

Overwhelmed by the realization that the future he had anticipated for himself will never come to pass, Eric begins to steal the tips owed his coworkers to fund his getaway from a world he now finds alienating and even frightening. As he slides weakly into the criminality Clark has suspected in him all along, Eric is rescued by his conscience. Along with his growing fear is a deepening sense of guilt so powerful that it is only when a group of thugs rob and brutally beat him that Eric begins to feel a satisfactory sense of expiation. Eric’s active conscience is something that appears to distinguish him from his friends and coworkers; in addition, unlike the others, Eric has always felt that the Lower East Side in which he has been living for eight years is haunted by the ghosts of the past, of those who were part of the old traditions brought over from Europe. The posh apartment of his boss Harry Steele is a desanctified synagogue and clearly a triumph of gentrification, and Eric is as uneasy in this contemporary tribute to the good life as he was when confronting the refrigerator Madonna. His reserve suggests that he is sensitive to issues of presumption and disrespect in a way that distinguishes him from those around him. The morally ambiguous Steele does, however, come close to being a much-needed father figure in Eric’s life, and it is Steele who gives the penitent Eric if not a second chance than at least a way out of the Lower East Side.

Steele references the issue of fathers, which is one of this novel’s important subjects. Like the fathers and father figures in this novel, Steele lives a life at a distance from that of his confused surrogate son Eric; similarly, Ike’s father, Billy Marcus, divorced from his son’s mother, is overcome by the realization that he has selfishly distanced himself from his son. The childish Billy ironically demonstrates even more adult dereliction after Ike’s death by drinking too much, abandoning his second wife and stepdaughter, and making a perfect pest of himself with the police force. The death of Ike, however, has forced Billy to own up to his faults, even as his determined downward spiral seems to be yet another bad move. Billy finds something of a soul mate in the investigating detective, Matty Clark. In pursuing this case, Matty, whose name echoes Billy’s, must face the fact that he has been wrong to distance himself from his two sons, who are about to become callow criminals; he understands that he must do something about it before it is too late.

Although by the end of this novel pervasive guilt has been established, the story does specify the orphaned Tristan Acevedo as the teenager who pulled the trigger on the gun. With his mother dead and his father absent, Tristan is living in a housing project with a callous stepfather and his new wife, who seem to retain him only because of his value as an unpaid caretaker for their small children. Tristan is given an opportunity to demonstrate some street “cred” when he is asked to join an older friend in a prowl of the neighborhood in search of likely prey, who turn out to be Ike and his buddies. The usual social pattern had ensured that Tristan and Ike are virtually invisible to each other, divided as they were along class, cultural, ethnic, and racial lines; it is only as a victim of crime that Ike finds himself face-to-face with Tristan. However, like Ike, Acevedo is unlucky in his choice of friends; it is his bullying pal who provides the inexperienced Tristan with the handgun with which he shoots Ike. In the aftermath, as was the case with Steven and Ike, the friendship is also tested and found empty. In addition, Tristan, like Ike, has artistic aspirations. He is a would-be writer of hip-hop lyrics, his voice and the voices of those like him mix in a jazzy way with the novel’s cop lingo and its patois of privileged youth. In fact, it is Price’s special talent to allow his characters to exist within their various voices, which blend and clash in a way that brings to life the entire spectrum of urban life, its low life, its high life, and its “lush life,” the last a phenomenon that suggests that the high life is never very far from its opposite.

The final major urban tribe in Price’s novel functions in a way that is both very near and quite far from such small-time criminals as Tristan. This tribe consists of the police, who keep an eye on the kids from the projects and run them to ground when necessary. The police see Ike and his friends as essentially well-to-do children on a protracted spring break, on occasion becoming the victims of the edgy teenagers from the housing projects. The job of the police is the surveillance and control of this latter groupthe novel begins, in fact, with something called the Quality of Life Task Force, who patrol the Lower East Side in an unmarked car looking for likely black and Hispanic perpetrators. It is the perspective of the police, in fact, that supplies this story with its tension and structure; this novel is on the face of it a police procedural, and there is considerable time spent seeing this world through the eyes of the troubled detective Matty and his more grounded and empathic partner, Yolonda.

Although an exciting, expertly executed crime novel on the surface, Lush Life is also a novel of conscience, both social and psychological. As a moralist, Price shows that, while the young people of any race or class have yet to develop a sense of consequence, older voices recognize that, with age and time, the wrong life will call down suffering and remorse. As a novelist with a social conscience, Price is sensitive and satiric, and at times he seems a stern Old Testament prophet, warning of numbered days. In Lush Life the police are hardly on top of very much, and even the detective of record is living a life that he must put into turnaround. In fact, each story suggests that this time in everyone’s life is about to be over or that time is running out. When the hip, downtown-Manhattan neighborhood depicted has been transplanted by novel’s end to Atlantic City as part of a new theme park, it suggests not a definitive end of days but a final, irreverent evaluation of a cultural landscape that has broken many hearts and has already lost its soul. Its shining hour seems to have lasted little longer than a New York minute.


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Booklist 104, no. 7 (December 1, 2007): 5.

Chicago Tribune, March 15, 2008, p. 4.

Entertainment Weekly, March 7, 2008, p. 94.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 1 (January 1, 2008): 12.

Library Journal 133, no. 4 (March 1, 2008): 75-76.

Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2008, p. R1.

The Nation 286, no. 22 (June 9, 2008): 48-52.

New York 41, no. 9 (March 10, 2008): 144-145.

The New York Review of Books 55, no. 7 (May 1, 2008): 28-31.

The New York Times, March 4, 2008, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review, March 16, 2008, p. 1.

The New Yorker 84, no. 8 (April 7, 2008): 79-81.

Newsweek 151, no. 10 (March 10, 2008): 50-52.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 3 (January 21, 2008): 151.

World Literature Today 82, no. 6 (November/December, 2008): 64-65.