By the late 1980s, 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 huge, grim, brutally authentic tale of crack dealing, murder, and salvation at a cost. Clockers felt like one of those books that illuminates a moment in our national life so perfectly, evoking its major themes and texture with such unerring precision, that you knew it would be read well into the future as much for its social history as for its compelling story. Price’s electrifying new novel, Freedomland (film rights to which were acquired by Paramount for producer Scott Rudin), gives off the same vibe, only stronger.
On a muggy night late in June, a young woman emerges from a half-acre park adjacent to a low-income city housing project (we’re back in fictitious Dempsy, N.J., 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 4-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 Det. Lorenzo (”Big Daddy”) Council to determine. A weary, asthmatic cop with the tough-love instincts of a community patriarch, Lorenzo feels increasingly torn between sympathy and professional skepticism. (According to his partner, ”Sixty-five percent of all children reported missing have been abducted, or done away with, by the adult who came in to report the kid missing in the first place.”) While Brenda drifts in and out of leaden silence, hints darkly about suicide, and listens constantly to vintage R&B songs through headphones, Lorenzo struggles to get at the truth. Why, he wonders with growing dread, is the woman so positive that her son will never be found?
Meanwhile, a cynical street reporter for the Dempsy Register has insinuated herself into the story. Till now strictly a ”stick-and-move artist…living off the police scanner,” Jesse Haus discovers, to her surprise and alarm, that she’s become emotionally connected to Brenda Martin. Like Lorenzo, though, Jesse is stymied in her attempts to learn whether Brenda is a victim or a cunning liar or both — until a group of amateur, and spookily zealous, child finders volunteers its services. And as the search for Cody Martin shifts from the turbulent projects to an abandoned psychiatric hospital and then to a shuttered amusement park in the nearby city of Gannon, Freedomland hurtles toward its harrowing, nearly hallucinatory climax.
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. (Still, a late-in-the-book protest march that erupts, inevitably, into violence, would’ve been twice as powerful, I think, at half the length.) 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. A