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Nowhere Else to Go

Richard Price's Samaritan

During his recent tour, Richard Price stood in front of a crowd at A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books and told everyone the one question he had for reviewers who pan his books: "How do they get my mother's number?"

It is this kind of humor which leavens the violence of his plots and the grit of his favored milieu, low income New York and New Jersey. His seventh book, Samaritan, is no different in this regard.

If writers are supposed to write about what they know, critics have singled out Price for doing just that. Price's genius is his ear for dialogue, his consciousness of the way people move in a room, what motivates them, what holds them back.

Nevertheless, parallels between Samaritan's Ray Mitchell and Price won't go ignored. Both Price and Ray grew up in housing projects, both were cocaine users, both wrote for Hollywood and became quickly wealthy, and both taught creative writing to at-risk youth. But Price is also a brilliant observer of a world not his own. Price populates his book with fully realized African American characters.

In many ways, Samaritan is a book about where you're supposed to go when the place you're from doesn't recognize you anymore, but you have nowhere else to go. Ray returns to New Jersey, flush from a three-year writing stint in Hollywood, not really knowing what to do with himself. He leads a creative writing group at a local high school and begins helping his former neighbors and students with their financial crises. He has an affair with a married woman of a different race. One day he is found in his apartment, his head bludgeoned. Although Ray knows who assaulted him, he is not saying who is responsible.

Enter Detective Nerese Ammons, nicknamed Tweety. Tweety is determined to find the culprit, not only because she is a childhood friend of Ray's, but because she has decided that this case will be her swan song before she retires from the Force.

The book's timeline covers two months. It oscillates in point of view between Tweety's investigation and omniscient chapters featuring Ray, which divulge everything that Tweety isn't finding out.

Perhaps the most touching scenes are those between Ray and his thirteen-year-old daughter Ruby. Ray was mentally absent during the first five years of Ruby's life and physically absent for much of the rest of it. He is desperate to reconnect with her but can never shake the feeling of being on an "awkward first date." He wants her respect and love and it seems that all of his samaritan acts are a way of proving to Ruby that he's a good guy worth knowing.

Price has also written the screenplays for Sea of Love, Ransom, and The Color of Money. At the San Francisco book reading, Price told the crowd about his experience during the "two minutes when [he] was hired" to write the screenplay for Rainman. After spending weeks at a bowling alley with an autistic man doing character development, Price was told by Dustin Hoffman that he didn't want any of Price's usual dialogue, which Hoffman called "Harvey Keitel shit."

While Samaritan does not have the fast pacing of a Harvey Keitel movie, it is much more than "Harvey Keitel shit."

Samaritan
by Richard Price
Knopf; ISBN 0-375-41115-1
Hardcover, 377 pages (Janaury 2003)

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