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 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...
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