Altruism backfires in novel

Big picture lacking in Price's 'Samaritan'

Sunday, February 2, 2003

Richard Price writes with the storytelling skills of a novelist and the eye and ear of a reporter.

His dialogue and details are perfect, at once drawing readers in and making them feel that they "know" the people and places Price writes about. But the characters he creates are more than real -- they're memorable.

In his two previous novels, "Clockers" and "Freedomland," Price created fully realized worlds populated by drug dealers, ambitious journalists, struggling inner-city residents and police, both honest and crooked. They were not novels as much as they were mosaics, in-depth portraits of people reacting to their intense surroundings.

In his latest novel, "Samaritan," Price returns to the fictional town of Dempsey, N.J., turf that he knows like his own face. Like the two previous novels, this one looks back at a crime through the eyes of two main characters -- in this case, TV writer Ray Mitchell and police officer Nerese Ammons. With Price, however, things are never that simple.

Mitchell has returned to Dempsey, where he grew up, after a successful career in Hollywood. Loaded with money and good will, he sets out to help people, offering his services free of charge to his former high school as a creative-writing teacher. At various times, he also helps to pay for the funeral of an acquaintance's son, provides thousands of dollars to a former student to help finance a dubious business proposition and tries to reconnect with his teenage daughter, who lives in New York with his ex-wife.

But something goes wrong: Mitchell is attacked and beaten in his home, and hospitalized with severe injuries. He refuses to identify the attacker, however, and much of the novel deals with Ammons' attempts to draw the secret out of him.

The narrative alternates between Mitchell's experiences before the attack and Ammons' investigation of it.

As the investigation continues, the novel reveals itself as not just a page-turning thriller but a look at the underlying currents of race and economics that motivate its characters. It also examines the dangerous effects of indiscriminate charity, given selfishly under a selfless veneer.

Mitchell is the first character to reveal this seeming contradiction, at one point asking Ammons, "What if I had it coming?"

But while the story and characters are complex and the details are impeccable, "Samaritan" never seems to pulse with the energy of Price's other Dempsey novels. Something is missing. Perhaps it is the fact that Mitchell, with his disposable bank account and need for validation, isn't as easy to relate to as other Price characters.

Or maybe it's that the novel's conclusion comes too suddenly and leaves readers feeling as though they've sifted through pages filled with painstaking details and red herrings.

Whatever the reason, the novel doesn't completely satisfy.

In "Samaritan," Price gets all the details right. It's the big picture that seems lacking.