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Stalking the Gramno

A book-review procedural about Richard Price’s Lush Life.


Question of the fucking day,” said Ross.

Stanny Henderson stagger-stumbled twelve minutes late into the middle of the Lush Life book-review prelim tactical-strategy session, just off an all-nighter with a little sidebar that’d given him way more hell than it was worth; eyes burning, fingertips sore, the paper-cut scar on his palm throbbing like the ghost of last year’s hatchet job come back screaming bloody vengeance; wouldn’t be here at all except this editor Ross had his balls in a sling over a mistake he’d made seven months ago, misquotation that’d nearly cost him his job. He choked down three fingers of ice-cold chamomile, brewed from a weak bag three days earlier, Sputnik’d the crumpled cup into the trash can, and slumped into an Aeron. Ross just warming up now, bracketed over the table edge, laying into the other three; didn’t even look up.

“The Big Question here?” Ross said. “I mean the one that this review needs to underline and bold and put in all-caps 30-point font and fucking light on fire and put up smoke signals about? The million-dollar fucking ultimate query? Is Richard Price one of the best five or six novelists in America, or is he writing glorified 400-page episodes of Law & Order?”

Stanny looking around the squad room, the Quality of Literature task force: Mayo, Sanchez, Hsu—three clip-on ties at a faux-oak table; their mantra: Quote, summarize, condemn; their motto: Judge every book by its cover. Sanchez hunched in the back, between the dictionary stands and broken typewriters, tugging on his soul patch, working up nerve, a whole shelf overpiled with advance copies ready to tip over behind him. Hsu scribbling his V-Ball. Excerpts from Lush Life dangle-tacked all over the walnut-paneled walls, ceiling to floor, easy reference; in front of each Aeron an inch-thick dossier, lists of major characters, themes, frags of description, more themes, page refs, key passages, color-coded maps, little bio of Richard Price: Bronx public-housing kid who made it big in movies (The Color of Money) and literature (Clockers) and TV (The Wire); unofficial laureate of the projects.

“What do we like here, gentlemen?”

Sanchez spoke up first. “Pretty much everything, boss. Best writer of dialogue since Plato. Slang you never even heard of. Keep expecting the page to stand up and wander off somewheres, make a pass at your wife, order a bacon sandwich. I mean—yeah, no, the guy can screenwrite, sure, little and big screen both. But what I didn’t know? What you forget every time ’cause he blows three-four years between books writing shit like Shaft and the talking parts of Michael Jackson videos? Pure literature, baby. The fucking merits. Does this full-on virtuoso Zola spiel, nineteenth-century-style social-realist novelist-as-reporter thing, X-ray of the city: sleeping arrangements of illegal Chinese immigrants, inventory of a teenage girl’s room in the projects, every object in a Lower East Side post-murder sidewalk shrine. Dude could look you up and down for three seconds, tell you everything you got in your pockets—everything you ever had in your pockets, everything your kids got in their pockets. Everything you wish you had in your pockets instead.”

“And the man understands addiction,” said Hsu. “Best prologue since DeLillo’s Underworld. Give that first page a taste, see if you can stop puffing.”

Mayo nodded; said, “Meanwhile, playa scribin’ tropes like Keats.”

“Still on my short list to write the Gramno,” said Hsu.

“The what?” said Stanny.

“Shit, man, the Gramno—Great American Fucking Novel? The Gramno?” Looking at Ross. “The fuck we get this guy.”

Everyone shuffled in their chairs.

“Mick,” said Ross, “run us through the plot one more time?”

“All right.” Mayo standing up, pointing to the big laminated graph of the book’s plot arc hanging over the table, a multicolored scramble that looked to Stanny like a blind kid’s drawing of the bottom half of Dostoyevsky’s beard. “Set in the contemporary Lower East Side. There’s this murder, right: 4 a.m. stickup goes bad, white hipster kid killed. Media storm, public outrage, street shrine, vic’s mopey dad—all that. NYPD Blue protocol: hard-ass interrogations, bosses passing the buck, blame ping-ponging around, case stalls out. Two cops—hold on,” checking the character sheet in front of him. “Two cops: Matty Clark, hard-boiled thick-jawed Irishman, and his partner Yolonda, Latina from the projects, master of street psych. Spinning their wheels, getting desperate. In the end? Turns out the real hero, the villain, the love interest, the murderer, origin and solution to the mystery, is New York City itself. Cops, perps, vics, author, reader all just along for the ride. City just—false lead here, coincidental run-in there—just keeps cycling characters in and around the cops until finally the right one gets stuck in the filter.”

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