"Samaritan" by Richard Price

The author of "Clockers" tells the story of a rich guilty white guy who tries to help the kids in the housing project he grew up in, with dire results.

Published January 18, 2003 12:02AM (EST)

Richard Price's early novels -- for example, "The Wanderers" -- were influenced as much by such movies as "Rebel Without a Cause" and "The Wild One" as they were by the fiction of one of Price's heroes, Hubert Selby Jr. They were often criticized for that, as well as celebrated for it. So, to both Price's supporters and detractors, it seemed a logical extension of his vivid, camera-ready prose when he went to Hollywood to pen screenplays.

But ever since Price returned to fiction with the series of social-realist novels that began with "Clockers" and continued with "Freedomland" and the new "Samaritan," it's been common to hear people say that the novelist has forfeited the "voice" of his first novels for the "messages" of his recent work. (That was essentially the thrust of Mark Costello's divided assessment of "Samaritan" in the New York Times Book Review.)

What makes that response so puzzling is that the voices of the individual characters in "Samaritan" (as in the two novels that preceded it) are as vivid and immediate as anything offered by his peers, and Price's own voice resonates through these books with a unique combination of weariness and urgency.

Perhaps we are no longer used to novelists who are superb reporters, lumping them in with genre writers or assuming that they are using fiction to do social rather than literary work. Whatever the reason, the kind of novel Richard Price writes, an investigation into the workings of inner-city life -- the way that life traps people, the price they pay to get out -- is not fashionable at the moment. Though it seems to me that in reporting on some of society's bedrock institutions (in this case, prisons and the police) and on communities that many of us are either cut off from or see solely in terms of social problems (thus robbing the inhabitants of their individuality) Price is doing work that we should expect from our major novelists.

"Samaritan," like "Clockers" and "Freedomland," takes place in the fictional Dempsy, N.J., a town that encompasses both spiffy new complexes for upscale retirees and long-standing public housing projects whose residents have lived there for generations. Ray Mitchell, a 43-year-old white guy, a product of the projects who made it out to become a successful TV writer, is the samaritan of the title. Motivated by both personal demons and his desire to reconnect with his teenage daughter, Ray moves back to Dempsy, living off his TV money, teaching creative writing to public school kids. Both a guilt-ridden soft touch and a narcissist, Ray hands out loans (to former students and neighbors from his boyhood) he has no hope of recovering. He nakedly craves the admiration of the kids he teaches.

Ray is a tricky, daring and often unattractive character to make the focus of a novel. But the epigraph Price has chosen for the novel, the famous quote from Matthew 6: 1-3, "let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth," makes Price's attitude toward Ray plain. Ray is an enthusiastic paver of the road to hell, a do-gooder oblivious to the consequences of his actions.

Ray is forced to face those consequences when he's nearly killed in a vicious attack and an old acquaintance from the projects, an African-American police detective named Nerese Ammons, vows to find Ray's assailant. Ray has no intention of helping her. The mystery is solved, logically and in a way that resonates with the themes of the novel, though Price is driven by voice and character rather than plot.

Price focuses on making all his characters vivid, not just Ray and Nerese but the ones who float through a single scene. You experience a silent little girl in a bodega used as a front for a drug business as vividly as you do the leads. The characters come alive in a few paragraphs and remain living presences after they depart. And despite a few passages of purely expository dialogue, Price has an ear that is near faultless.

"Samaritan" might be read as a companion to Nick Hornby's "How to Be Good," also about the politics and consequences of samaritanism. Price is trodding on explosive territory. As a good novelist should, even one addressing social issues, Price avoids ideology. And though "Samaritan" is his bleakest book, you put it down convinced he is trying to find, in the midst of racial and economic divisions, the things that we share. He's the reporter-novelist as despairing humanist.

Our next pick: Nicholson Baker transforms belly-button lint and bars of soap into touching and hilarious meditations on time and life

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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