Stalking the Gramno

Photo: Bernhard Lang/Getty Images

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.”

“So just devil’s advocate,” Ross said. “I mean, do we need another cop procedural at this point? Number one, I haven’t seen this every day since Hill Street Blues, since Cops, since motherfucking Matlock? Bad boys, bad boys? Since I was flipping past reruns of Starsky and Hutch with a fucking Rubik’s Cube in my lap? Number two, I’m supposed to care how some little esoteric club of grunt workers does their work, step by fucking step, with all the forms and red tape and lingo, the fucking office furniture? I mean, what next, someone writes an epic look inside the janitorial arts? A fucking book-review procedural?”

“They pull it off this good, boss?” Sanchez said. “I’ll read the fuckin’ trilogy.”

The door skipped open and, after an empty beat, Randolph Mayer scissored in on stiff legs, chief technician from the Quality of Literature analysis lab; crossed the room slow and crooked like he was walking on chopsticks; rumor was, sometime back in the whole Harry Potter craze, he ended up pinned between 8-year-olds at a big release party; left with grade-three paper cuts on both Achilles’. Bright red mullet. Ross called him the Scarlet Gimpernel.

“Just got the results from the Bullshit-Indicator Test,” Mayer said. “Thought you’d wanna know. Book came out almost totally clean.”

“Good,” said Ross. “We can rave it—1,000 percent pure positivity, for once. Another nego review, editorial’ll have my ass. Manna from fucking heaven.”

“Except, but boss?” said Mayer.

“Oh Christ.” Looked like a rat just chewed the cover off his autographed hand-revised first-edition Leaves of Grass.

“Three things, couple small, one big,” Mayer said. “One, the book can’t quite sustain the momentum of its prologue. Within a hundred pages or so you’ve got a 35, 36 percent slackage. Still nice and fast, but noticeable. Second, the mystery plot gets pretty busy, coincidence numbers flare up a coupla times into the red—everyone running into everyone else. Say, just hypothetical, a kid steals a bike on page 3, cops are sure to arrest him on page 50 for something unrelated, turns out he’s working for the vic’s landlord, lives next door to the perp, shops at the wit’s store, eats lunch with the vic’s dad. That kind of thing. Can feel manipulative. And third, well—I mean, we all hate hipsters, right? Even hipsters hate hipsters. But Jesus, man—Richard Price? Guy straight-out, fucking, detests, hipsters. Can work up a decent lather of sympathy for any subculture in the underworld: Junkies, drunks, liars, cops, murderers, thieves, real-estate kingpins—all human, complicated, explainable, damaged, worthy of respect. But hipsters? No. Makes for the only dishonest writing in the book: twenty intolerable pages of a bullshit hipster memorial service that comes off as pure cartoon satire—allegory of the infestation of the once-noble LES. I mean, I know hipsters aren’t exactly an oppressed class or anything, but still. Feels unfair. Kind of invalidates some of what he’s doing here.”

Stanny blinked hard, must have napped through two full minutes of conversation. When he opened his eyes, Hsu was watching him.

“So do we have a Gramno here?” Ross said.

There was a long silence, Mayo finger-drumming his binder.

“We got at least a fucking Very Goomno,” said Hsu; then, staring hard at Stanny like he was about to open fire. “Someone get the kid a fucking translator.”

Q&A With Richard Price

Lush Life
By Richard Price.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 455 Pages. $26.

Stalking the Gramno