Good Deeds

Richard Price takes a fresh approach with well-worn characters.

It would be nice if everyone in the entertainment industry agreed that it was time to put certain overused characters on ice once and for all.

The criminal, for instance, who has one last score to pull off before going straight, or the cop with one last case to crack before retirement. The naïve-but-spunky schoolteacher determined to get through to the kids in the 'hood also comes to mind.

There are many more cogs in this overused fiction machine, but they offer few surprises. More often than not, the big score goes awry, the cop solves the case and the teacher's once tough-as-nails students see the light in time to collect their sheepskins. Roll credits.

But if these retreads cannot be put to rest, then perhaps the creative intelligentsia can at least promise to do something fresh with them.

Novelist and screenwriter Richard Price has made a career out of delving out fresh insights from well-worn urban types. And his newest novel Samaritan is no exception.

Those familiar with his work already know that happy endings are not necessarily in the cards in Price's world. And that is especially true in Dempsey, N.J., Price's fictional cityscape that has served as the backdrop for his two previous novels, bestsellers Clockers and Freedomland.

On this newest trip to Dempsey, Price hinges his story on two stereotypes--the retiring cop and the big-hearted teacher. But any similarity between Samaritan and a dozen or so other paint-by-the-numbers inner-city soap operas of recent years ends there.

Price turns what could have been cookie-cutter characters on their ears right from the start. Instead of giving us another teacher on a missionary quest to educate the unwashed ghetto dwellers, Price offers up Ray Mitchell, a former drug addict, failed teacher and absentee father, who is brimming with doubt and self-disgust. He lives off a fat nest egg he bankrolled while writing hackneyed scripts for a popular TV drama (the sort of program that probably relied on retiring cops and well-meaning educators). In a fit of sentimentality--and an effort to give some meaning to his own shallow life--Mitchell moves back to his old Dempsey stomping grounds for a pro bono gig teaching writing to a handful of underprivileged students.

But it is a misguided good deed--only one of many that Mitchell performs. He quickly becomes a bull in a china shop, disrupting the lives of several Dempsey residents and his path of good intentions soon lead straight to a personal hell: Someone--for some reason--attacks Mitchell and nearly kills him.

Enter Nerese Ammons, a burned-out 20-year veteran of the Dempsey PD with an eye on a Florida retirement package and little interest in the assault case--until she learns the victim was Mitchell, whom she remembers fondly from her own Dempsey childhood. It would be an open-and-shut project for Ammons if only Mitchell would cooperate and give up the name of his attacker, but he refuses. And that is where the novel takes off.

Mitchell blames himself for the beating, which is accurate enough, but this is of little help to Ammons. Instead she is forced to rely on shoe leather to solve the case.

The mystery unfolds in two directions: We watch her piece together the clues--while Mitchell recuperates--and we also learn, in retrospect, about Mitchell's ill-fated interactions with the citizens of Dempsey that led to the crime. Eventually, this before-and-after story structure meets at a violent intersection, and it leaves the reader to mull over the fine line that separates good will from disruption.

As is the case with most of Price's work, the story moves along at a brisk pace. The characters--even the bit players--are well rounded and there is a thread of danger that runs throughout, underscoring just how in-over-his-head the Mitchell character truly is. Best of all, the entire novel is sewn together with Price's signature stiletto-sharp dialogue. Nobody--except maybe Elmore Leonard--knows how to advance a taut story using conversation the way that Price does.

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