By the late ’80s, Richard Price’s success as a Hollywood screenwriter (“The Color of Money,” “Sea of Love”) had virtually eclipsed his earlier reputation as a novelist — but then, in 1992, came “Clockers,” that grim, brutally authentic tale of crack-dealing, murder, and salvation-at-a-cost. “Clockers” instantly felt like one of those books that illuminates a moment in our national life so perfectly that you just knew it was going to be read well into the future. Price’s electrifying new novel, “Freedomland,” gives off the same vibe, only stronger.
On a muggy June night, a young woman emerges from a park adjacent to a low-income city housing project (we?re back in fictitious Dempsy, New Jersey, the setting for “Clockers”). Dazed and bleeding, Brenda Martin claims she was yanked from behind the wheel of her Toyota Camry, and that her unknown assailant then sped off with her four-year-old son, Cody, still asleep on the rear seat. And because Brenda is white and the carjacker, she tells police, was an African-American male, the accidental kidnapping assumes an ugly racial edge. Eventually, the projects are sealed off, the residents are penned in, the press corps gathers, and tension mounts. Hot time, summer in the city.
But is Brenda, whose troubled history includes drug abuse and emotional instability, telling the truth? That’s up to Detective Lorenzo (“Big Daddy”) Council to determine. A weary, asthmatic cop with the tough-love instincts of a community patriarch, Council feels increasingly torn between sympathy and professional skepticism. While Brenda drifts in and out of leaden silence, hints darkly about suicide, and listens constantly to vintage R&B songs through headphones, Lorenzo sturggles to get at the truth. Why, he wonders with growing dread, is the woman so positive that her son will never be found?
Although the novel is, finally, too long, Richard Price writes with such energy and vernacular dash, and with such an extraordinary grasp of urban dialects, that it never lapses into sluggishness. Engrossing and memorable, “Freedomland” is also, be warned, a psychically draining work of fiction. And while Price’s vision of race relations in America may not be heartening or hopeful, it’s undeniably an unflinching one.