Price's 'Samaritan': from cool to cosmic

January 26, 2003|By James Asher | By James Asher,Special to the Sun

Samaritan, by Richard Price. Knopf. 400 pages. $25.

Samaritan is good. Very good. Pick it up, and you won't be putting it down. This book reinforces my bias that novelists had better be good writers. Richard Price is and he had me hooked to the end.

Set in post-World-Trade-Center-New Jersey, Samaritan is about "good deeds" done by the well intentioned and how, too often, they go astray. Ray Mitchell, a ghetto escapee who also overcame a go-round with drugs, returns to his old neighborhood with a fat bank account and a mission to do some good in his part of this rotten, messed-up world.

Not long into his missionary service on the seamy side of Dempsy, N.J., Ray is met with more challenges than he expected and more than he can handle. After one stark transgression, our hero is beaten senseless and ends up hospitalized.

Surrounded as he has been with the riff and raff of society, Ray's assailant could be anyone.

The stylistic approach of Samaritan is to alternately tell the story of the police investigation of Ray's beating with reminiscences of Ray's life as a do-gooder.

These dual tracks offer hints of the culprit and the possible reasons for the assault. It also highlights the misinterpretations of the investigating officer. In the end, the ID of the perp is a surprise to everyone, even to Ray.

What I like about this novel is not only its style, but also the timing of its exposition and the neat way that Price ties up the story's ending. He's also a master of dialogue. With little narrative to guide the reader, the novel keeps up its rapid pace with some of the most realistic, and compelling, conversations I've read.

Clearly, this is a well-thought-out tale and it is better for it.

Sprinkled among the chapters also are some very cool concepts. Some are even cosmic.

The effortlessness with which they are inserted into the narrative and dialogue is proof of Price's ability as a writer.

Here is a sampling:

* On getting some advice about his daughter, Ray is told: "If you really want to be a friend to her ... don't be her friend, be her father."

* On living in the projects, "This is the Boulevard of Broken Dreams around here. ... It's all you can do to have a say in your own destiny let alone somebody else's."

* "The four a.m. diner was like all diners: gray Formica, dull raspberry padding, either Mylar wallpaper or marble-veined mirrors on every vertical surface. The comatose waiters in mock semiformal wear stood dead-eyed by the cash register, one or two holding Ten Commandment-sized menus and all slightly listing."

Good, huh? I recommend Samaritan. Be forewarned, however, that the F-word is resplendent in this book. But its frequency does not detract from a swell story, well told.

James Asher is editor of enterprise journalism in the Knight-Ridder Newspapers Washington Bureau and a former editor at The Sun and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has been writing for newspapers for more than 25 years.

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