The only troubling thing about Richard Price’s excellent new novel, The Whites, is the curious use of a pseudonym, or—in this case—a quasi-one. The Whites is officially credited to “Richard Price Writing as Harry Brandt.” There’s a public explanation, of sorts, about this absurdity, and it involves an attempt by Price to write a different kind of novel than the ones for what he is best known, including Clockers and Lush Life, which are amalgams of literary fiction, street novels, and police procedurals, written with colloquial poetry and a hard-boiled élan unrivaled in American writing of its kind. A deviation from this identity is particularly curious since it rivals the very duality many of the characters in The Whites unsuccessfully attempt to maintain.
The Whites is about a former NYPD unit—the Wild Geese—who have since moved on from law enforcement, with the exception of one member: Billy Graves, who, after a questionable shooting that took the life of a ten-year-old boy, humps it out as top dog on the midnight shift that responds to all wee-hours crime. It’s an ugly post, but Graves is happy to still have his badge and a semblance of normalcy, including a troubled but devoted wife, a slightly senile father, and two rough-and-tumble boys tucked safely away in their family home up in Yonkers.
“Moving on” from police work is something all of the Wild Geese, including Graves, have had a hard actuating. Despite their respective day jobs (and Graves’ night gig), they all harbor churning resentment born from former cases where the perpetrators of abominable crimes walked. Hence the title. Those who failed their proper reckoning with justice are the respective “white whales” who drive their individual Ahab’s personal quests for redemption through revenge. When The Whites of the Wild Geese start to pile up, literally and figuratively, Graves is inclined to investigate. Complicating matters is the fact that there’s an Ahab (who happens to be NYPD, as well) out there with a childhood score to settle with Graves’s wife.
Price’s plot pushes the boundaries of probability to an extent, but that’s O.K. There’s enough magic in the whip-smart street-talk of his characters to pull the reader through pages of questionable plot. And the characterizations are dead-on and delivered with deadpan brilliance. Here’s how price details one of the Wild Geese turned building super:
“Dressed tonight in a daggered-collared cherry leather car coat and flare-bottom jeans, he was standing in front of the geriatric twin elevators, barking at a toffee-colored tenant with vaguely Asiatic eyes and a whipped mustache, the guy shoulder toting a duffel bag as if on shore leave.”
This tenant just hit the lottery, and the former goose is concerned about broadcasting his new found wealth:
“Somebody comes to my door three days from now, says there’s a smell coming from 5D? I don’t want to find you, see some three-legged alligator tortured you for your ATM code, left you with a screwdriver in your ear.”
But the real strength of Price’s work lies in his ability, slow and exacting as a Slash solo, to unpack his characters’ inner-workings, to lay bare their souls for our own consideration, evoking a type of empathy that characterizes the most magnificent literature. This effect is particularly important (and prescient considering current times) when it comes to police officers since they are—to most—the silent soldiers whose realities are unfathomable to the unfamiliar.
Published on The Brooklyn Rail Post: Call Me Harry: Book Review “The Whites”