Street smart

In the trendy Lower East Side of Manhattan, a restaurant manager named Eric Cash witnesses the murder of a colleague. That's not his biggest problem. "Lush Life," a new novel by the author of "Clockers," is a crime story swaddling an existential crisis -- and a portrait of a neighborhood famous for its immigrant past.

As the story begins, Cash is working on a screenplay, but his creative confidence is under siege. Stuck with an "unsatisfied yearning for validation," he is, at 35, experiencing a drawn-out crisis of youth. Cash has never become what he wanted to be, and it is starting to seem that his day job is all there will be to his life.

Meanwhile, in a neighborhood known for its "right here and newness," waiters and bartenders assert claims to being artists and actors. A question about what you do is understood to mean, what are you working on when you're not punching the clock? Acting auditions? Open-mike poetry? Defeated by his ambitions, Cash becomes bitter toward this culture of imminent breakthrough: "At some point," he complains, these people should realize that they "just are what they are." His own life is in quiet free fall. He skims off the nightly tip pool, snorts cocaine in the basement and watches his romantic relationship unravel. The violence he witnesses at close range is only the final blow.

Barhopping late one night, Cash and two acquaintances get mugged at gunpoint. One of his friends, Ike, steps forward and does what both tourists and jaded city-dwellers know is the foolish move. "Not tonight, my man," he says, just before he is fatally shot. The only sober witness, a disoriented Cash quickly becomes a suspect.

Price's accomplishment here is to have the crime story harden his character's gathering cynicism. This is a plot-driven novel, and yet, on the fly, it asks, what happens when a person at the brink finally falls? A second victim, Ike's father Billy, is made even more vulnerable, not by failure but by grief. Overwrought and determined to help the police find his boy's killer, he wonders, "Did I make my son into that boy who charged a gun last week? I did, didn't I?"

If Cash and Billy can be grouped as the suffering side of the story, "Lush Life" is equally attentive to the criminals and the cops. The novel is street smart. Price's day job as writer for the acclaimed HBO series "The Wire" informs the novel with an abundance of slang, police jargon and nickname. Detectives orchestrate their good cop-bad cop interview routines, and the bureaucracy of law enforcement shows its political underside.

Even more vivid is the neighborhood itself. Price elevates vibrant streetscape to the level of a mute main character. Here, "massive futuristic structures" reshape some of the best views of Manhattan, and traces of the older immigrant world persist in turn-of-the-century brickwork, in fire escapes on tenement facades, and, most earnestly, in a cellar beam whose inscription ("Remember Me") Cash recognizes, perhaps a little too conveniently, from a Jacob Riis photograph. This crush of past and present is eulogized and satirized. A concluding Atlantic City scene even turns immigrant nostalgia into theme-park farce.

In the shadows of gentrification and history, a seamier, drug-dealing, abusive environment encloses Tristan, Ike's teenage shooter. Suffocating in a crowded and hostile apartment, Tristan's lifeline is twofold: common crime, and a notebook of poetic fragments free flowing with cadence and rage: King of Hell / Know him well / I walk right in / Don't ring the bell

In a sense, Tristan is an artistic inversion of Eric Cash. Lyrics rush from him without reflection. Poetry doesn't even console him; it is both a compulsion and what a Roberto Bolaño character once called as "a surreptitious form of violence."

In the end, the illusions of Price's contemporary Lower East Side become parodies of the mythical American dream. The artists here are rising free -- they hope -- from sweatshop restaurant work. Cash for one is conscious of the long shadow of romanticized immigrants. Here he is reflecting, a little melodramatically, on the inscription left on the beam in his restaurant's cellar: "I know what that squiggle, that hand, was trying to tell us. It's like, from that whole, millions coming over, here's this one infinitesimal voice that says, 'I am, I was,' says, 'Remember me,' and it just makes me want to cry."

Books like this -- scripts of speed -- struggle to distill emotion. The suggestion of weeping here (and elsewhere) feels like a stunt of despair rather than its overflow. With its jagged plot and swift prose, "Lush Life" is a portrait of the streets, not, for all the stabs at grief, an elegy. Its energy is the clipped percussion of Tristan's notebook rather than Cash's stillborn hopes: Im a player a slayer / so be understandful / of the handful / that I am / And if you say obey? / You better pray / Cause its a brand new day