It’s an apt description for the author of such contemporary crime fiction classics as Clockers and Samaritan, screenplays for Sea of Love and The Color of Money, and teleplays for the acclaimed HBO series The Wire. Apt not so much based on his looks, but on how Price approaches his craft.
Like Pacino, or any great method actor, Richard Price soaks in his stories as if he were a sponge, living the life of the miscreants and derelicts that he depicts in his novels. When he walks onto the stage, dressed in a pink shirt, jeans and a grey jacket, he appears both casual and nervous as if he were a younger, less nebbishy Woody Allen, a visual far from the street hustlers that he portrayed in his novels.
Richard Price was in Seattle to promote his latest, Lush Life (2008, recently reissued as a trade paperback), a masterpiece of a novel that sees the writer returning to his old New York haunts after a prolonged absence from his work.
Set in Manhattan’s gritty, multi-ethnic Lower East Side, Lush Life follows Eric Cash, a fledgling writer who suddenly finds himself over his head and increasingly feeling his age in the ever more youth-driven culture of the neighbourhood. The book feels like an extension of earlier Richard Price novels, but evidence of his work on The Wire shows in the multiple plot lines and cross-strata characters, which give each section an episodic feel. None of it would work if Price’s prose did not give the feeling of someone who has lived what he is writing about.
Of course, as Richard Price tells it, he was removed from the lifestyle of the street tough (he tells a tale of being in “the Goldberg Gang”, best known for their skills in algebra), despite growing up in a housing project in Brooklyn and developing a cocaine habit in the ’80s. His first three novels all dealt with life in the underbelly of New York, but he began to feel bored with it all, eschewing the common “write what you know” aesthetic that is so often drilled into literary students.
To write instead about experiences that were beyond his personal expertise, Price began to network through the New Jersey Police Department, who gave him access to everything from methadone clinics to drug dealers-turned-informants. It is here that Richard Price and his “method writing” come into effect, as he fully immersed himself in the world of his contacts to the point that it becomes as addicting as the cocaine he once abused. He takes on the lives of his creations, and often turns those he follows into characters (such as Roscoe Klein from Clockers, based on a real New Jersey police officer) in his books.
Price tells these stories to his audience in Seattle while standing at a podium, nervously shuffling his notes as he speaks, taking his glasses on and off at random. Much to his obvious (and stated) annoyance, he had been asked not to read from his novel, but the stories he weaves into his lecture are as powerful as his written words. At one point, he manages to sneak in a small piece that “someone else wrote,” a quick tale about a holy roller in Harlem. When Richard Price reads, his voice and mannerisms change slightly, taking on the characteristics of those in the writing.
To not be able to read from their novel would be crippling for some writers, but Price works the room, adding doses of humor and realism to his lecture, all while dropping hints on his next novel which appears to take place in Harlem. As he has done with previous novels, Richard Price relocated to the Manhattan neighbourhood, rode with the police, and made himself known to his neighbors and the locals, fully embedding himself in the culture.
The night ends on a humorous note as Price, in response to a question, recalls a time when he feared for his life. He had been with the police during the day, taking notes as they staked out a heroin house. That evening, he returned to the house with a drug dealer. Someone recognized him, ran out and yelled at that “Dustin Hoffman-looking motherfucker,” accusing him of being an informant for the police.
This is Richard Price in a nutshell. He is a chameleon, both in his writing and in his ability to shift from writer to sightseer of the world in which his novels inhabit, an immersive actor in a world of sideline spectators.