Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A crypto-Christian novelist?

Michiko Kakutani's review this morning of Richard Price's new crime novel, Lush Life, is ecstatic. I don't know when I will have time to read it, but Price's earlier book, Freedomland, is a great favorite of mine. (The movie of Freedomland got lukewarm reviews, even though Mr. Price wrote the screenplay, and I have not seen it.) Mr. Price lives in New York, but I have never been able to track him down, to my frustration. He interests me greatly because, if Freedomland is any guide, he knows something about Christianity and portrays it with understanding and respect. I don't know where he got this rapport with biblical faith from, but in that book, at least, he is pretty much pitch-perfect. Plus, it is the best book about the urban scene and our racial problem (he calls it "the American flu") that I think I have ever read.

The main character in Freedomland is a black police detective, Lorenzo. He is assigned to the case of a young woman, Brenda, who says she has been carjacked by a black man and that her child was in the car. Lorenzo is suspicious of the story but has no proof. He befriends Brenda and spends countless hours with her visiting the site, canvassing the neighborhood, and just talking. Lorenzo is a fascinating character. Everything that we see him doing in the book makes us like him tremendously; he is hard-working, conscientious, smart, tough—and gentle. He talks to Brenda in explicitly Christian terms: "You got to draw strength from God...See, you can think of people as good, bad, guilty, innocent, but whatever we do, whatever mistakes we make in life, he don't make mistakes, and me, you, everybody out there, we're nothing more than His agents..."

As the story unfolds, we discover that this likable detective is a recovering alcoholic, and one of his sons is doing time in prison. The other son, a good citizen and schoolteacher, won't have anything to do with him. So we can see that Lorenzo is talking about himself as well as Brenda when he says, "Let me tell you something...With kids? No matter what you did, how badly you messed up, God will find some way of letting you get up to bat again. You see, Brenda, God's grace? It's, like, retroactive."

There could be nothing more Biblical than that. But that's not all he says. Trying to coax Brenda into a confession, he talks to her about a song by Mary Wells called "Two Lovers." "I got two lovers and I ain't ashamed," she sings. It turns out that the two lovers are, as Lorenzo puts it, "the same guy split into two, kind and loving, and the other person, when he was treating her bad, messin' around on her, like, a split personality. But you know, I swear, the older I get the more I think that song is about everybody, you know what I'm saying?...I mean we're all two people..." (simul peccator et iustus—simultaneously sinner and saint)

I'm always trying to coax preachers to read literary novels (as opposed to mass-market commercial fiction). Why is this important? Here's a major reason: Richard Price himself said in an interview, "I wanted to create people who wind up tripping all over themselves because they have unexpected empathy for the other. I just wanted to do a story where people cannot hold to their sides." He wants us to see ourselves in all the characters, instead of setting ourselves over against the "bad" ones. This, surely, is the calling of the Christian pastor, preacher, leader, believer—to have "unexpected empathy for the other" as Jesus Christ had for those who put him to death (namely, all of us).

A good line from the Kakutani review concerns Tom Wolfe, who used to be a brilliant culture critic but has never been a first-rate literary novelist. She writes, "He [Price] is as adept as Tom Wolfe at using his journalistic eye for social detail…but he does so without turning his characters, as Mr. Wolfe so often does, into caricatures or cartoons." Maybe that's why so many hundreds of thousands of people read Wolfe. It takes more mental effort to read Price, although, to be sure, Ms. Kakutani promises, "At its most basic level, Lush Life is a police procedural, and it possesses all the gut-level suspense of a detective story."

Hmmm. Maybe I will just have to find time for it.

Click here for the review: