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Atlantic Unbound | February 26, 2003
Shades of Gray

In his new novel, Samaritan, Richard Price returns to Dempsy, New Jersey—a world where "lines aren't so strictly drawn."



by Richard Price
377 pages, $25.00

 compulsive do-gooder is violently attacked in his apartment and nearly dies. The detective on the case is an old friend who wants to return a long-owed favor by catching the assailant. But the victim won't tell the cop (or the reader) whodunit. Therein lies the complex psychology and page-turning intrigue of Richard Price's new novel Samaritan.

Ray Mitchell—the so-called "Samaritan"—moves back east with only good intentions. After a successful stint writing for television in Hollywood, he conquers a drug addiction, starts pro bono teaching at his old high school, and tries to reconnect with his daughter. He is no doubt generous—giving $3,200 to an acquaintance for a funeral and $7,300 to a former student to start a T-shirt business—but his generosity, tainted by self-interest, almost kills him. "You need too much to be liked," concludes the detective assigned to his case, "and that's a bad weakness to have. It makes you reckless. And it makes you dangerous."

Samaritan is a return to familiar ground for Price. It is the third novel set in Dempsy, New Jersey, "the city," Price says, "of my own imagination." In Clockers (1992) Dempsy was the battleground between police officers and a ring of drug dealers, and in Freedomland (1998) it was the setting for the investigation of a woman who falsely accused a black man of a murder she had committed. Samaritan is also a return to material that hits close to home for Price, who has a lot in common with the character Mitchell. Price grew up in housing projects in the Bronx, defeated a cocaine addiction, has had his share of Hollywood screenwriting success (he wrote Sea of Love and The Color of Money), and has taught in urban public schools.

"Gritty" is the word that many reviewers use to describe the setting and social realism of Price's novels. In Samaritan "sneaker-fruit and plastic bags dangle ... from bare tree limbs," a cop looks with disgust and dismissal at a young pregnant girl, and the rapid-fire dialogue jumps off the page. (One character, for instance, tells Mitchell, "I don't have a record, man, I have a fucking album.") Price's eye for sharp detail makes both Dempsy and the characters who live there come alive, and he takes on complex issues of race and class with unflinching honesty.

Price is the author of six previous novels. He lives in New York City with his wife, the painter Judith Hudson, and his two daughters.

—Jessica Murphy

Richard Price
Richard Price   

Samaritan returns to Dempsy, New Jersey—the same fictional landscape of your novels Freedomland and Clockers. What is it about Dempsy that keeps you coming back to it?

Because it's the city of my own imagination. It's supposed to stand in for every urban mid-sized area in the country. If I said it was Jersey City or if I said it was the Bronx then it would have to be specific and beholden to the reality of those specific places. It just gives me a lot more freedom to say what I want to say. And when people are reading it they can think of whatever city is nearest to them, be it Oakland or St. Louis or wherever.

In a previous interview you said, "Samaritan is ... about the Haves reaching out without really understanding what the Have Nots are all about, and the trickiness of trying to connect in a real and meaningful way across the lines of race and class." Why is this "trickiness" something you wanted to examine?

There are different elements. My own experience is such that I've had a lot of dealings with people whom I wouldn't normally hang out with anymore simply to write the books that I've been writing, and it made me think a lot about my relationships with them.

I do feel that the thing with the Haves and the Have Nots is that there is something that taints the nature of generosity when going across the lines of class and race. And that thing that taints that generosity and good will is ego. Many times people's motives are unknown even to themselves; their motives are as much about going to heaven, saying, I did this, I did that, as they are about having a true impact on the people whom they're allegedly helping out.

Ray is an example of what you're talking about—he tries to connect with people by "helping" them, volunteering, giving out money. Another way that he tries to connect with people, particularly his students, his daughter, and his girlfriend's son, is by telling them stories about his past. What is the importance of storytelling as it relates to your work and your characters?

Basically, storytelling is an elaborate way of expressing affection by giving a piece of yourself to someone. Especially with children. It's sort of offering yourself up in some metaphorical way. It's trying to make the impossibly inarticulate somehow articulate. It's a more elaborate way of getting something across than saying, I love you, or Have a nice day, or God bless you.

One can't help but notice some similarities between you and Ray Mitchell. Was this character easier or more difficult to write because you had a lot in common with him?

Both. It was easier to the extent that I was basically tapping into something that I walk around with. It's a little bit like opening a vein. And more difficult because it was harder to figure out what was of universal interest and what was only interesting to me. It's sort of like your nose is pressed up very close to the mirror. I didn't have the same aesthetic distance that I would normally have when I'm just creating a character out of whole cloth. There's a danger of just running your mouth.

And what are the challenges of writing from the perspective of a character different from yourself, for example, Strike, an adolescent drug dealer, or Nerese, a black female cop? Are the challenges any different?

I find it's easier to write about somebody who's not yours, because then you're wide open. What you're thinking is not tempered by your life history or by only trying to find that intersection between art and life. When I start from the ground up there is no self consciousness that comes into play.

Do you get criticism for writing from an African-American perspective? If so, what is your response?

I've never really gotten any criticism about it. You create characters and there really should be nobody that's off limits. The only challenge is to create fully realized characters. Other than that I can write about who I want and so can everybody else.

In reviews, your novels have often been described as "cinematic" or as a "cinemascope." Would you agree? Has screenwriting had an effect on your fiction, on the way you create scene and dialogue?

No. I think it's just the opposite. The way I write fiction has affected my screenwriting. People think that if you go out to Hollywood you learn to write the way you need to. But basically I think that the reason I was able to do so much stuff in Hollywood is that my natural instincts are to tell a story. The way I write is very much like how it would play on a screen, which is: people say something, then something happens, and then it moves on. It's just a very visual and oral form of storytelling, but that preceded Hollywood.

Regarding his television writing Ray Mitchell says, "I'm at best a run-of-the-mill writer but writing for TV is more like learning how to dance a particular dance. You can have a little variety here and there, a little quirky move now and then, but basically it's one, two, cha-cha-cha over and over, so hey, I can do that. I mean there's probably a few well-trained dolphins out there that can do that." Do you agree with Ray's take on screenwriting? Is there a formula?

I do feel that way, depending on who you're writing for. The bigger the budget, the more money that's at stake, the less freedom you have to deviate, because it's all about recouping your investment and gaining a profit. Why would you invest a hundred million dollars into a product when you can't calculate whether people are going to go for it? So if you're writing for the studios they're much more focused on making people happy by anticipating what people want. The lower the budget the less there is at stake, and the more freedom there is for whoever's making the films or the stories.

Is there then infinitely more freedom in fiction?

In fiction it's just you. They're printing a book. Nobody will say, No, this book is too sad, or this book has to be more demographically skewed to make this market happier. Books are small, small change compared to films. I mean, how much does it cost to manufacture a book? If the book is eccentric or if the book is sort of singular you can just limit the numbers of books you're going to print. And if it happens to catch on and sell, you just go back and print more. Nobody is going to print up 200,000 copies of an extremely experimental piece of fiction. They'll do a small number and if it catches on, they'll just go back. There's no real risk. But with a movie, you're all in from the jump. You've got to have the money on the line. It's not like you can make half a movie.

How does your approach to the two kinds of writing compare?

Screenwriting is very situation driven. There's a plot, there's a situation, and it's very simply that you've got a character, you've got conflict, you resolve the conflict, and you're walking out and hopefully everybody's happy. It's almost cut and dried.

Bookwriting is a lot more elusive. It's character driven. I'm not racing the clock. The book doesn't have to come in under two hours. I just have a lot more freedom. There are so many more rules in screenwriting, so it's both easier and harder.

Your novels often have a double narrative. In Samaritan we flip flop from Ray Mitchell to Nerese Ammons. In Freedomland from Lorenzo Council to Jesse Haus. In Clockers from Rocco to Strike. What appeals to you about this structure?

It makes a long story go faster by setting up a kind of pendulum rhythm. If you shift the perspective rather than just going straight ahead, it makes it feel like the story's moving more. Also, when there's more than one perspective I feel like there's no absolute take on anything that happens. It's a mini Rashomon, in which the same event is interpreted in different ways. But I do it mostly to develop some kind of narrative rhythm that readers can fall into.

If I'm correct, you did a good deal of research for Clockers, working both with cops and with drug dealers. Aside from the story that resulted, with all of its authentic details and characters, what did you learn from working with those two opposing groups? Did you ever find that it was difficult to be working with both sides?

Basically what you find out is that police in poor neighborhoods, no matter what they do, positive or negative, are roughly perceived as an occupying army. Oftentimes the cops can't tell the difference between the people who are problematic and the people who just live there. So they will assume that everybody's problematic until proven otherwise simply as a matter of self-preservation. Conversely, I also find that the lines aren't so strictly drawn, that there's a lot more interaction between the "good guys" and the "bad guys." Everybody out there sees each other every day and life goes on, and it's much grayer out there than it is black or white.

I don't want to hit that research point too much. I didn't do any research for Samaritan. Oftentimes when you talk too much about research the creative element gets lost. There's a tendency to talk about the almost journalistic elements of it, but it's important to remember that it is fiction, that everything is a product of my imagination, that I might have gone out to learn things, but that that in itself is just a stack of notebooks—there's no art in that. It's just data compilation. The novels are novels; they're not documentaries.

In a 1992 Time article you said, "With subject matter like this, with regard to race and class, I really wanted to know my stuff very intimately. I wanted to make things up in an extremely responsible way." What does "making things up in an extremely responsible way" entail?

What that means is that you want to know what the parameters of reality are before you make up your fictional parable—which is sort of a more artful way of reporting on the literalness of what's out there. The whole point of fiction is to take all the data and shape it into an allegory or a parable. In order to do this, I really wanted to know what the parameters of plausibility were. I didn't want to make anything up and have someone who knew more than I did about that world look at it and put it down saying, "This guy has no idea what he's talking about."

What do you think? Join the conversation in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Jessica Murphy is getting her M.F.A. in fiction at Emerson College.

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.