My original plan for Priced Out was that I would review everything Richard Price had written prior to the release of his new novel The Whites and then stop, rather than continuing to review his new stuff as it came out. I’m still not planning to post new reviews continuously, but it now seems silly not to do a full write-up of the book that this blog was always leading up to. I wrote a bit about the backstory of The Whites in the “Epilogue” post I put up the day it came out; here are my thoughts now that I’ve had the chance to actually read it.
Quick backstory recap: Price wrote The Whites “as Harry Brandt” partly because he wanted to write a more conventionally pulpy crime novel without muddying the literary reputation of his earlier books, and partly as a way of side-stepping his contractual obligation to deliver a new novel to the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He now says he regrets the pen name gambit, as The Whites didn’t end up being much less of a challenge to write than his other books.
The “whites” of the title are “white whales,” unapprehended criminals who become obsessions for the cops who failed to put them away. The book’s protagonist, Manhattan Night Watch detective Billy Graves, is a former member of a rogue NYPD unit called the “Wild Geese,” and when the Geese’s whites start turning up dead, Billy begins to suspect that one of his old colleagues is responsible. Meanwhile, Billy and his family in turn become the targets of a stalker, the brutish cop Milton Ramos, who wants revenge over something Billy’s wife Carmen did decades ago.
Although neither of these parallel stories are completely outlandish, they both operate on a more heightened level of reality than Price’s novels usually occupy. So The Whites does indeed feel like the work of a more genre-friendly crime writer; it’d fit comfortably alongside something by Dennis Lehane or George Pelecanos, Price’s former collaborators on The Wire. That’s good company to be in, but the risk of moving in that direction–and, presumably, the reason Price originally wanted to keep some pseudonymous distance from this project–is that genre fiction can tend towards unoriginality and inauthenticity, interested more in rehashing the tropes of stories that have come before than in drawing inspiration from the writer’s own experiences.
Fortunately, while The Whites isn’t focused on a topical issue like the crack epidemic or gentrification (or the recent outcry against police racism and brutality, a topic Price already covered to some extent in Freedomland), reality very much informs its central interest, which is the surreal nature of police work as experienced by those who perform it. Price has been fascinated by cops ever since he started hanging out with them as research for 1989’s Sea of Love; they have, he says, “a backstage pass to the greatest show on earth,” a quality with obvious appeal to a writer interested in precise observations of human behavior. That fascination is overtly expressed in The Whites by Billy’s father, a cop himself: “Here’s to God,” he says, “because the man had to be a natural-born genius to invent this job.”
As such, The Whites functions as a kind of grab bag, a way for Price to unload some of the stories and imagery he’d absorbed during his past research but hadn’t yet found a home for in his novels. (“Wow,” he recalls thinking, “I have all these memories stockpiled; I just have to figure out a plot.”) The central whites/Ramos plots are surrounded by smaller moments that are believable due to their very absurdity, like a man being shot by his own lawn mower as he rolls over an unused shell left in his lawn, or a tragic yet fittingly informal funeral for a young gang member, or a ritualistic meeting of a parents-of-murdered-children group called the Memory Keepers. As in real life, nothing in a Richard Price novel functions quite the way it seems it should; Billy, supposedly dedicated to the defense of society’s moral boundaries, finds himself disgusted with the irresponsibility of a mugging victim and, later, impressed by the audacity of a violent panhandler. And Ramos, the book’s most prominently villainous character, often lurches towards redemption and is pitifully sympathetic even when he’s out to destroy our hero’s life.
This sense of stranger-than-fiction realism is reinforced by Price’s prose, which is as sharp as ever: Carmen exudes “bakery warmth;” a stoner exhales “enough smoke to announce a pope;” while Milton ponders his lover’s pregnancy, his school-age daughter is off-handedly referred to as his “already-child.” And this would hardly be a review of a Richard Price novel without a mention of his famous dialogue, which, just to give a single sample, includes this witness’s description of a suspect as overheard over a cell: “My phone doesn’t come with eyes, but I know white when I hear it and that guy was white all day long.”
The narrative structure that holds up all these anecdotes and distinctive turns of phrase works on its own pulp-fiction terms as well. It never provides the whodunit twists it often seems to be heading towards, opting for the solution-in-plain-sight approach of Clockers or Freedomland rather than the kind of genuinely surprising reveal Price managed in Samaritan, but it effortlessly keeps the reader on a simmer of page-turner tension. The texture surrounding the narrative, though, is what makes The Whites recognizable as a Richard Price book regardless of whose name is on the cover. It’s a worthy and unique addition to his bibliography, and an appropriate work for this blog to go out on.
A few other notes:
• OK, there is one other thing that makes The Whites recognizable as a Richard Price book regardless of whose name is on the cover, and that’s the abundance of moments and lines of dialogue that echo earlier Price works: “Anybody’d write a poem would suck a dick” (Lush Life), the use of “Morlock” in reference to members of the underclass (Ransom), a drunk’s eyes resembling “two cherries floating in buttermilk” (Lush Life, NYC 22), etc.
• Speaking of Price’s 2012 CBS series NYC 22, that show was kin to The Whites in its role as a showcase for miscellaneous cop stories, and it even uses a few of the same ones, including a gang member getting a light bulb shard in his eye and a resident of a rough neighborhood being unwisely generous with his lottery winnings. (These moments take on a noticeably darker tone in The Whites than they had on network TV.) A description of a criminal who intimidates people into buying candy from him, much as a guy in the NYC 22 pilot bullied victims into buying aspidistra plants, is followed two pages later by an unrelated aspidistra reference, suggesting that Price either wanted to highlight the connection or just subconsciously combined two things he was working on simultaneously.
• A description of Billy as lying “in a fetal curl on his joke of an office couch” brings to mind a memorable early glimpse of Robert De Niro in Mad Dog and Glory:
• One Wild Geese member gets offered the chance to work as a consultant on a remake of the film Fort Apache, The Bronx, which sounds very much like the kind of project Price would get hired to write or punch up. The original Fort Apache was scripted by Price’s Streets of Gold co-writer Heywood Gould.