26 APRIL 2003, Page 39

Mapping out the badlands

Paul Willetts

SAMARITAN by Richard Price Bloomsbury £12.99, pp. 396, ISBN 0747562245

Hollywood-bound novelists are conventionally portrayed as striking a Faustian bargain. For the sake of financial security and material comfort, they are seen to be sacrificing their artistic integrity. Yet the facts don't always endorse this view of East Coast literary talent corroded by West Coast inanity and philistinism. An obvious example is provided by Richard Price, erstwhile boy wonder of American fiction, probably more famous now as an Oscarnominated screenwriter. Through his involvement with the film industry, Price has, unlike other successful novelists ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Jay McInerney, prospered both financially and artistically.

Aged only 24, he made his impressive debut with The Wanderers (1974), an episodic, semi-autobiographical account of New York's teenage gangs. He consolidated his reputation with three novels in the space of nine years, all drawing on his urban, working-class background, all animated by the demotic brio of his dialogue, the street-swagger of his prose, the visual clarity of his descriptions. It was only when his supply of autobiographical raw material had been exhausted that he turned to screenwriting as an escape-route from his creative impasse.

In researching what would become Sea of Love, the romantic thriller starring Al Pacino, he accompanied a tough New York police officer on patr 'through the city's drug-ridden badlt , ne experience revitalised his won, a:, a novelist, yielding the inspiration for the bleak but tender Clockers, which Mai t,cu his move away from overtly autobiographical fiction. He followed this with Freedomland, another ruminative exploration of inner-city angst. Together with Samaritan, his latest novel, they form a loosely connected trilogy, set in a fictional New Jersey city.

Because the plots of all three books are propelled by acts of violence, investigated by police detectives, they are, not unnaturally, marketed as crime novels. Though they possess narrative verve they owe their allure less to generic suspense than a more subtle brand of drama.

Like its predecessors, Samaritan focuses on the ramifications of violence, the way it reverberates through the emotional lives of numerous interconnected people. The crime, in this case, consists of the severe head injuries inflicted on Ray Mitchell, a directionless drop-out from a lucrative career as a television scriptwriter. Compelled to play the good Samaritan, he has been teaching on a voluntary basis in his old neighbourhood, where the prevalent poverty is no longer assuaged by a reassuring sense of community. Due to either memory-loss or some unsavoury relationship with his assailant, Ray refuses to disclose the name of whoever attacked him. Using a fractured time-scheme that conveys his troubling sense of disorientation, the book probes his past and follows a childhood acquaintance on her quest to discover the identity of his attacker.

What distinguishes Samaritan is not just the fine-grained sensitivity of the writing, but also the originality of its cynical theme — how selfishness often underlies apparent altruism. Beyond their desolate setting and pungent atmosphere of loneliness, Price's recent novels share a fascination with the mysterious motives behind selfdestructive behaviour. Why he remains so consistently undervalued in this country is, however, an even greater mystery.