Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Gentrification Mysteries, Pt. II

Richard Price's Lush Life was miles better than Lake House, though not without its flaws. The main difference being, of course, Price can write. Here's how he sums up the "atmosphere of massive archaeological discovery" that is the Lower East Side:

"But for all this reborn carriage house's ingenuity, its artful attempt at appeasing its own history while declaring itself the newest of the new, it was the double layer of evicted ghosts -- pauperish tenants, greenhorn parishioners -- that still held sway for him, Matty already having been afflicted with Cop's Eyes; the compulsion to imagine the overlay of the dead wherever he went."

The plot's very basic: a kid, Ike Marcus, gets shot on the LES, two cops bungle the investigation and spend the rest of the novel getting it back on track. "The rest of the novel" being 350 pages or so. Mainly, it's an exploration of the neighborhood, with a failed writer/actor-bartender at its center. The failure, Eric Cash, has been characterized as what you start being "when the hyphen stops."

"He’s modeled partly on [myself]," says Price, "He’s me if what has been hadn’t been. I’ve always been interested in when the hyphen disappears — you know, actor-waiter, cabdriver-writer — and you have to settle for who you are."

In a way, this is a far subtler characterization of becoming an adult than Laken's narrative was. The moment when you realize your dreams are never coming true? That's when you grow up. The depressing nature of big box stores is nothing but adolescent whining compared to that.

Lush Life has other brilliant touches, beside just the exploration of failure.

Other standout scenes include the awful parade of egos at Ike Marcus' funeral, emceed by a self-involved hipster par excellence, an awful aspiring actor named Steven Boulware. Price's skewering of the trust-fund set is dead on, awkward, embarrassing, hilarious. One obnoxious girls, who calls herself Fraunces Tavern, uses Ike's funeral as a venue to discuss their sex life, completely traumatizing the kid's little sister. Then the parade of hipsters in sleeve-garters and handlebar mustaches give Ike an old-timey jazz funeral send-off, complete with the band-leader handing out his business card at the end of it.

Characterization, other than the great caricatures of hipsters, and the bitchy passive-aggressive cop, Yolanda, was a bit flat. Matty, the other cop, had flaws that were just a bit too on the nose (in a story about a son dying, Matty's got problems with his own sons ... meh). And the little ghetto kid who writes bad raps in his notebook I'm sure is supposed to be "authentic" but comes off as merely monodimensional. However, the bad raps themselves were perfect:

I'm a player a slayer
so be understandful
of the handful
that I am

Obviously, the most important character is the LES itself, and that, my friends, is masterfully developed. I loved the scene in the Chinese funeral supply store, and Price's descriptions, as above, are dazzling. It's also fun to play the roman-a-clef game. Do you think the bar Chinaman's Chance = Happy Ending?

Price says, “This place is like Byzantium. It’s tomorrow, yesterday — anyplace but today," adding that "he thinks of the neighborhood as a very busy ghost town, where many of the ghosts milling around still speak Yiddish." Price points out the irony of 5th generation kids whose ancestors clawed their way out of there now paying 2 grand a month for the privilege of residing in former tenements. Circle of life and all that.

The main symptoms of gentrification, besides the condos, of course, are "the liquor stores [that] no longer sell Thunderbird." Liquor stores, I think, can be seen as the ultimate litmus test. Walk into a liquor store, and if the counter is behind bulletproof glass, your neighborhood is not gentrified. Try it, it works.

Of course, what's really interesting is reading the book from a post-economic collapse perspective. There's a fabulous conversation where the cop, Yolanda, tries to get a kid on the straight and narrow, advising him to get a construction job because, well, he'll be sitting pretty then! Oh, what a difference a few months makes. Better off sticking to a life of crime, kiddo.

(Above quotes from: NYT)

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