The Taser's Edge

Bright Lights, Big City (Vintage, 1984) by Jay McInerney

I’ve had Bright Lights, Big City for years, and I’m certain I bought it at a particular Salvation Army in Wisconsin whose checkout folks never actually counted the $.33 paperbacks.  It looked interesting, and it was slim, and Raymond Carver says on the front of my copy, “A rambunctious, deadly funny novel that goes right for the mark—the human heart.”

I think Ray (he lets me call him that, since he’s dead and all) might have been able to laugh at more than me, although, yes, this is a funny novel.

I’m interested in what NYC was before it is now.  Not that I know the city at all, but I know that it used to be dangerous, and that plenty of places are safe now.  (Now, for instance, St. Louis is showing the world just how boring the American Midwest is by being the most dangerous city in the States.)  How did that happen?

Not too long ago, I read Richard Price’s Lush Life, which is set in New York today.  Several weeks ago for the first time I watched Wall Street, which is set in New York a bit later than Bright Lights.  And then, to bring in a really strange reference, my thoughts about Manhattan are also heavily informed by the Newbery Medal winning It’s Like This, Cat (now somehow open source).   Also, I have tried the wondrous-to-carb-lovers spaghetti sandwich, which is indeed a bunch of spaghetti and sauce between two pieces of bread, because of that last book.

Bright Lights is the story of a young man making his way in the city.  His particular way is in the fact-checking section of a major magazine, but he is not particularly interested in the job.  He is likely able to be good at it, but he is not good at it.  Part of the problem may be the alcohol and the cocaine and the fact that his wife left him and that his mother died of cancer recently.  When I write it all out in a sentence like that, it seems like this might fall into the Wally Lamb school of contemporary lit., but reading it, it doesn’t.

Told for the most part in an interesting (to me, which could be annoying to a different reader), mostly second person point-of-view, Bright Lights takes us through a few days in it’s protagonist’s life where all the stressors come crashing together.  The thing that marks how smart Bright Lights is—to me—that it truly begins as writers say that novels and books are supposed to begin, in the middle of the action.  And it ends, as fewer authors accomplish without feeling too abrupt, in the middle of the action.

Strong writing, interesting story, interesting topic, real relationships and dialogue, well-written, and short.  Hard to complain about much here.

Although, I guess you could screw it up:

Lush Life by Richard Price

Reading Richard Price’s Lush Life is like reading an episode of The Wire.  All the incredible realism and dialogue, facts about how hard life can be in the US that you didn’t want to know (read either way: we don’t want to know the facts, and there is indeed a ‘US that you didn’t want to know’), corruption in high places in law enforcement and government, coming together into socially conscious art.  Cinematic art in the case of The Wire, literary art in the case of Lush Life.

There are a number of shocking bits that illustrate those many elements just named, but the biggest overall may be that this takes place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, home to artists and actors at various levels of up-and-coming but mostly ‘failed’, gentrification, public housing and destitute immigrant populations, all a short jaunt from Wall Street.

The biggest shock in terms of a single scene may be when a side investigation takes the two main cops, Matty and Yolonda, into a contemporary tenement in Chinatown.  Remember as you read, the New York tenements you learned about in grade school with the overcrowded immigrant populations and the trees growing in Brooklyn were built starting in 1839.  In this scene, we are in 2003:

One of few remaining pre-tenement rookeries, 24 East Broadway was squat and rambling, on a block filled with similarly ancient and amorphous buildings, the door to the street at this late hour kept open via a strip of duct tape blocking the lock. [Note from T.E.: The unlocked door is because there are too many people in the apartment to get enough keys, as they all keep different hours depending mainly on their employment.] […]

The top floor of 24 East Broadway had only one apartment, this door slightly ajar too.  Matty looking at Yolonda, then pushing it wide as he knocked and droned, “Hello, police,” his ID curled in his hand.  The first thing they saw stepping inside was a rough pyramid of men’s shoes, maybe two dozen pairs, either black slip-ons or plastic shower clogs stacked beneath a department-store still life of buckshot pheasants and a powder horn.  No one came to the door, but Asian pop drifted from down the hall.

“Hello, police,” another desultory shout-out, and then they began walking toward the music.  The place was a modified railroad flat, basically a long central corridor flanked by rooms, most of which had been divided and divided again with Sheetrock into cells, each with a foam mattress topped by a twist of sheets, save for two larger rooms, one on either side of the hallway, both bare of furniture other than what looked like extrawide bookshelves bracketed into the walls in vertical stacks of three.  On a few of these planks men were either smoking in the dark or asleep, each man still awake slowly rolling to face the wall as the detectives shadowed their doorway […]

Matty and Yolonda don’t get anywhere by speaking English, and so they leave for now, soon returning with a Chinese police officer, Fenton Ma.

After a moment’s conversation the manager led Fenton past Matty and Yolonda back down the hall to one of the larger bedrooms, said something to one of the smokers lying in the dark, then left them to it.

The guy’s plank was the third one up from the bottom, so although flat on his back, he was on eye level with Ma, both of their faces intermittently illuminated by the flare of his inhalations.

A moment later Fenton came out, muttering, “Fucking eeba-geebas,” [a slur against this speaker of a different Chinese dialect than Ma’s Mandarin] and signaled for the manager to come in and translate for him.

“Is that our guy?” Yolonda asked.

“No,” Fenton said, then returned with the manager to his conversation.

After a while the mingled odors of sweat and smoke coming from the bedroom made them retreat to the kitchen, where they waited in silence until Fenton came back out into the hallway and signaled for them to head on out.

“That wasn’t Paul Ng?” Matty asked, leading the way down the stairs.

“That was his tenant.”

“Whose tenant?”

“Paul Ng’s.”

“Tenant of what?”

“The plank.”

“The what?”

Fenton stopped on the second-floor landing.

“Ng rents that plank for a hundred and fifty a month from the guy in the kitchen, who leased the whole apartment, but three days a week they got Ng working in a restaurant up in New Paltz, so he sublets his plank to that guy laying there now for seventy-five bucks.”


“Hey, between the seventy grand he’s probably working off to the snakehead that got him over here and sending a little something back to his family on the mainland?  He’s kicking back about eighty percent of whatever shit salary they’re paying him, all of which is to say you sublet that fucking plank.”

Richard Price’s take on this is reinforced by an interview with Barnes and Noble from shortly after the book was published, in which Price compares the living situation of Lower Manhattan Chinese immigrants today to that of Manhattan Jews back when Jacob Riis was muckraking.

"Tenement of 1863, for twelve families on each flat."

To return to the comparison between Lush Life and The Wire, I admit it breaks down.  Whereas each season of The Wire is the slow unfolding of a massive system of crime and dirt in general, near the end of Lush Life you realize that the novel is actually only about a single, ‘normal’ crime–a small-time robbery accidentally turned to murder, and the police assigned to investigate the case.  It takes 400 pages to notice this, because it is dang intense, and you have been locked into Price’s world.

It may actually be that the simplicity of the crime, its ‘mundane’ nature for the cops that work to solve it and the community in which it takes place, that highlights Price’s skill as a writer most of all.  Finally, although I can suspend all kinds of disbelief in some settings, in a story based so concretely in reality, I can be a harsh critic of the nonsensical or overly fortuitous plot twist.  Price doesn’t give his police a single too easy break, and it is all for the reader’s good.

Perhaps in TV terms, in Lush Life what we have is not The Wire but the first half of a Law & Order episode.  One difference: instead of a precise 40 minutes (including commercials) of clichés and crap leading up to an arrest, Price’s fictional two to three week murder investigation leading to the perpetrator stretches 450 pages of wow.  Read.  It.

‘Current and Recent Readings’ are Updated!
October 15, 2010, 1:49 pm
Filed under: Books, Life | Tags: ,