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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Ray Mitchell, a former TV writer who has left Hollywood under a cloud, returns to urban Dempsy, New Jersey, hoping to make a difference in the lives of his struggling neighbors. Instead, his very public and emotionally suspect generosity gets him beaten nearly to death. Ray refuses to name his assailant, which makes him intensely interesting to Detective Nerese Ammons, a friend from childhood, who now sets out to unlock the secret of his reticence. Set against the intensely realized backdrop of urban America, the cat and mouse game that unfolds is both morally complex and utterly gripping.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

Prologue: OUT OF TIME

Ray - January 10

Ray Mitchell, white, forty-three, and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Ruby, sat perched on the top slat of a playground bench in the heart of the Hopewell Houses, a twenty-four-tower low-income housing project in the city of Dempsy, New Jersey.

It was just after sundown: a clear winter's night, the sky still holding on to that last tinge of electric blue. Directly above their heads, sneaker-fruit and snagged plastic bags dangled from bare tree limbs; above that, an encircling ring of fourteen-story buildings; hundreds of aluminum-framed eyes twitching TV-light silver, and above all, the stars, faintly panting, like dogs at rest.

They were alone, but Ray wasn't too concerned about it-he had grown up in these houses; eighteen years ending in college, and naive or not he just couldn't quite regard Hopewell as an alien nation. Besides, a foot and a half of snow had fallen in the last two days and that kind of drama tended to put a hush on things, herd most of the worrisome stuff indoors.

Not that it was even all that cold-they were reasonably comfortable sitting there under the yellow glow of sodium lights, looking out over the pristine crust under which, half-buried, were geodesic monkey bars, two concrete crawl-through barrels and three cement seals, only their snouts and eyes visible above the snow line, as if they were truly at sea.

Two Hispanic teenaged girls cocooned inside puffy coats and speaking through their scarves walked past the playground, talking to each other about various boys' hair. Ray attempted to catch his daughter's eye to see if she had overheard any of that but Ruby, embarrassed about being here, about not belonging here, studied her boots.

As the girls walked out of earshot, the snowy silence returned, a phenomenal silence for a place so huge, the only sounds the fitful rustling of the plastic bags skewered on the branches overhead, the sporadic buzzing of front-door security locks in the buildings behind them and the occasional crunching tread of a tenant making their way along the snowpacked footpaths.

"Dad?" Ruby said in a soft high voice. "When you were a child, did Grandma and Grandpa like living here?"

"When I was a child?" Ray touched by her formality. "I guess. I mean, here was here, you know what I'm saying? People lived where they lived. At least, back then they did."

At the low end of the projects, along Rocker Drive, an elevated PATH train shot past the Houses, briefly visible to them through a gap in the buildings.

"Tell me another one," Ruby said, her breath curling in the air.

"Another story?"

"Yeah."

"About Prince and Dub?"

"Tell me some more names."

"More?" He had already rattled off at least a dozen. "Jesus, okay, hang on...There was Butchie, Big Chief, Psycho, Hercules, Little Psycho-no relation to regular Psycho-Cookie, Tweetie..."

"Tell me a story about Tweetie."

"About Tweetie? OK. Oh. How about one with Tweetie and Dub?"

"Sure."

"OK. When I was twelve? Dub's thirteen, we're playing stickball on the sidewalk in front of the building, about eight guys. You know what stickball is?"

"Yes."

"How do you..."

"Just go."

"OK. We're playing on the sidewalk. Dub's standing there at the plate, got the bat..."

Ray slipped off the bench, struck a pose.

"Ball comes in..." He took a full swing. "And behind him is this girl Tweetie, she's just like, daydreaming or whatever, and the stick, on the backswing, like, clips her right over the eye like, zzzip...Slices off half of her eyebrow, the skin, the flesh-"

"Stop." Ruby hissed, jiggling her knees.

"Dub, he doesn't even know he did it. But she's standing there, and you know, like Dub she was black, Tweetie, very dark-skinned, and it's like all of a sudden over her eye there's this deep bright pink gash, totally dry, she says, 'Oh Dub,' in a shock voice, not mad, more like upset, or scared. And, I remember what was freaky to me, was that from the waist up she was calm, but below? Her legs were running in place. And in the next second, that dry pink gash? It just fills up with blood. And now Dub sees what he did, everybody sees it, and I remember, she says, 'Oh Dub,' again, in this fluty voice and then the blood just...spills, comes down over that side of her face like someone had turned on a faucet, and everybody just freaks, just...We're all twelve, thirteen years old, Tweetie is like, ten, but when we saw all that blood? People, the guys, everybody freaked and most of them, they ran away, they just ran, except me, I'm standing there, and Dub. Dub is still holding the stickbat and he has this angry look on his face like, it's not, it's more like he's stunned, he knows he's in trouble, he knows he should do something, apologize, explain why it's not his fault, but he can't, he can't even move, you know, the blood, and now she's crying, Tweetie, and me, I'm as freaked as anybody but I just wound up going robot on it. What I do is, I pull off my sweaty T-shirt, a white T-shirt, roll it up in a ball and I go over and put it on her eyebrow, like a compress. I'm holding it there with one hand, and I put my arm around her shoulder, she was a short little pudgy kid, a butterball, and I steer her to the curb and we sit on the curb rib to rib. I'm holding my T-shirt to that gash, I got my arm around her, and we just sit there. I have no idea what to do, what I'm doing, she's crying, and Dub, he's still standing there with the stickbat. He looks fierce, like he wants to punch somebody, but he is stone paralyzed...

"We're sitting there maybe three minutes, me and Tweetie, I think I got the blood stopped, Dub's playing statue, and all of a sudden I look at him and his eyes go, Pop! Buggin'. And he's, someone's coming from the other direction and just like that he drops the stickbat and hauls ass out of there. And he could run, Dub, but this wasn't running, this was freight-training, he was pumping so hard he could've gone through a wall.

"So I turn to see what made him go off? It's Eddie Paris, his dad. Eddie doesn't chase him or anything. He just crouches down in front of me and Tweetie on the curb, you know, like squatting on the balls of his feet? And he's calm, got a cigarette hanging from his lips, got his hair all processed, you know, marcelled back and I'm like, finally we got a grownup there, thank God, but instantly Tweetie starts saying, 'Mr. Paris, it's not Dub's fault, he didn't see me, it's my fault,' because she, I mean, everybody knew how Eddie lit into his kids when they screwed up and it was- I guess she was a nice enough person, a kid, I didn't really know her but...

"She says all this stuff to get Dub off the hook, but Eddie, it's like he's not even paying attention to her. He just puts his hand on my hand holding that T-shirt, I mean that thing was a big red sponge by this point, and he tells me to let go and he starts trying to tease the shirt off the gash to see the damage? But he can't. The cotton has meshed with the wound and was like stuck to it so he takes my hand, puts it back on the T-shirt, says, 'Just sit tight.' And that's what we did..."

"Where was Tweetie's dad?"

"I don't think she had one. Her family, her mother was some kind of wino or something, had this crackly voice, dragged herself around in a housedress."

"A what?"

"Bathrobe, always smoking, and she had two older brothers, Tweetie, one was like this ghetto-style drag queen, Antoine, he'd go around in flip-flops and a hair net. He'd like, camel-walk like..."

Ray got up again and took a few steps in a languid undulating mime, his eyes both sleepy and predatory. "You know, hung around the boys' room at school, tell you you were standing too close to the urinal, make you take a step back to see what..." Ray broke it off. "Anyways, Antoine, he stabbed someone, went to reform school, came out, stabbed someone else, went to jail. And she had this other brother Butchie, in and out of jail, real hard-core tough guy, stickups, drugs, guns, no sense of humor..."

"What do you mean no sense..."

"I'm, it's a joke."

Ruby stared at him, the story getting away from her.

"OK. Five minutes after he left us, Eddie Paris pulls up to the curb in his station wagon and he puts me and Tweetie in the backseat. We're like Siamese twins connected by a T-shirt.

"He drives us to the Dempsy Medical Center, I'm still with no shirt on and I'm wearing white dungarees."

"Dungarees?"

"Jeans. They just started selling white ones that summer. White, so you can imagine what they looked like with all that blood.

"We go into the emergency room. I'm topless, sitting there with her a half hour on the benches until she gets called. The doctor finally takes over on the T-shirt-holding job, they give me a hospital smock to wear and they let me watch as they kind of wash the T-shirt away from her eyebrow, little by little; then they sew her up, guy looked like he was lacing a boot.

"Eddie drives us back home, not saying a word, and little Tweetie, she just keeps up this line of 'Mr. Paris, Dub didn't see me, it's not his fault, it was an accident,' which is pretty amazing that a ten-year-old could have that awareness of other people, the trouble they were in, you know what I'm saying?"

"Go on..."

"Eddie just keeps driving, doesn't say a word, takes us back to Hopewell and that was it."

"Did she say thank you?"

"To who."

"To you."

"Nope."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. She was a little kid."

"But she talked about Dub."

"Dub was in trouble, I wasn't. Ruby, she was in fifth grade. 'Thank you' is like Latin to a fifth-grader."

"I would have said thank you."

"And I would have said you're welcome, whatever."

"What happened to Dub?"

"Somebody said that he slept on the roof of our building that night, came home the next afternoon once his dad went off to work. But I don't really know."

"What happened to Tweetie?"

"I'm not sure. Something not good, I think. The last thing I remember with her was about three, four years later, when she was a teenager. She got caught spray-painting 'White Bitch' on the wall of Eleven Building, caught by the housing cops right in the act, and, I remember, that day, being on the basketball courts, all of a sudden everybody's running to the fence and there's Tweetie between these two cops and she's not exactly crying but there's, like, leakage, coming down her face and they just march her off to the management office on the other side of the projects, a whole bunch of kids kind of following them, making jokes and whatever. I mean, I hate to say this, Ruby, but kids can be real shits."

"Did you make any jokes?"

"I don't remember. I hope not."

"Did Dub make any jokes?"

"I don't think he was there."

"Did Dub ever apologize?"

"For the, to Tweetie? My guess is not."

"I would have apologized."

"I don't doubt it."

Another train shot past down on Rocker, distance giving it the scale of a Christmas toy.

"Go on," Ruby said.

"Go on where..."

"Tell me another one."

Part I: CONTRECOUP

Chapter 1
Ray - January 4

Entering Paulus Hook High School for only the second time since graduation twenty-five years earlier, Ray approached the security desk, a rickety card table set up beneath a blue-and-gold Christmas/Kwanza/Hanukkah banner, which still hung from the ceiling in the darkly varnished lobby four days into the New Year.

The uniformed guard standing behind the sign-in book was a grandmotherly black woman: short, bespectacled, wearing an odd homemade uniform of fuzzy knit watch cap, gray slacks and a commando sweater, a khaki ribbed pullover with a saddle-shaped leather patch straddling the left shoulder.

"You got a visitor's pass?" she asked Ray as he hunched over the sign-in sheet.

"Me? I'm here to guest-teach a class."

"They give you a teacher's ID?"

"A what?" Then, "No..."

Straightening up, he was struck with a humid waft of boiled hot dogs and some kind of furry bean-based soup that threw him right back into tenth grade. "Today's my first day."

. . .

With all regulation classrooms booked at this hour, Ray had been offered the faculty lounge to conduct his volunteer writers' workshop, but in his anxiety for this thing to come off he had shown up too early, walking in on four real teachers brown-bagging it around a long conference table that centered the room.

Despite his stranger status, not one of them even looked his way, and after standing inside the doorway for an awkward moment, he quietly maneuvered himself behind a large scuffed desk wedged into a corner and just sat there waiting for the period-ending bell.

The teachers, all men, seemed to be working their way through a hit list of rotten apples.

"Rosario?"

"Out."

"Jenkins?"

"Out."

"Fanshaw?"

"Out. I talked with his mother and I think he's out of the house, too."

"Maldonado?"

"Out. I just told him. I swear, that kid does 'Bewildered' better than anybody on two feet. 'Mr. Rosen, what I do? Suspended! Why?' Because you're on your own fuckin' planet, Edgardo..."

"How about Templeton..."

"I'm giving him one last chance."

"Aw, he got to you with that smile, huh?"

"Nah, nah nah, I just said, 'Hey Curtis, there's a new statute on the books-Consorting with Known Morons. I see you with Dukey, Ghost, or any of that crew? I don't care if it's a country mile from school property. You're vaporized.'"

"Vaporized?"

"Don't worry, he understood me loud and clear."

They were either ignoring him or simply letting him be, Ray scanning the walls, taking in the student artwork; mostly crude cut-felt mosaics featuring idyllic tableaus of urban positivism: a black family eating dinner together, multicolored neighbors planting a community garden, big brown kids reading to little brown kids.

When the bell finally rang, the teachers at the table groaned to their feet, as reluctant to go back to the classrooms as any of the students.

Three of them filed out of the lounge without ever acknowledging him, but the last one made a stop at the desk, leaning forward on his knuckles to offer a confidence.

"I would rate ninety-six percent of the kids in this school from OK to great; the other four percent are just stone fucking assholes taking up space and there's nothing we can do about it."

Alone now, Ray took in the disembodied sound track of the students out in the halls, a steady murmurous stream of agitation, punctuated by squawks, bird caws and bellows.

Five minutes went by, the muffled hullabaloo gradually fading away out there, yet he found himself still facing an empty room.

To conceal from himself how awkward and vaguely embarrassed he was beginning to feel, he began fiddling with his cell phone; checking for messages, calling the sports hotline, the 970 weather forecast; played with his datebook; then scribbled down a few introductory notes for his phantom students; coming off busy as hell, yet when the school's principal, Bill or Bob Egan, knocked on the open door of the empty lounge, Ray almost shot to his feet with relief.
Richard Price|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Richard Price

Richard Price - Samaritan

Photo © Ralph Gibson

Richard Price is the author of six previous novels, including the national best-sellers Freedomland and Clockers, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1999 he received an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His fiction, articles and essays have appeared in Best American Essays 2002, the New York Times, the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, Esquire, The Village Voice and Rolling Stone. He has also written numerous screenplays, including Sea of Love, Ransom and The Color of Money. He lives in New York City with his wife, the painter Judith Hudson, and his two daughters.

Author Q&A

An Interview with Richard Price

Q: Samaritan is your third novel (following CLOCKERS and FREEDOMLAND) to bring to life the streets and housing projects of Dempsey, NJ. What made you want to return to this fictional landscape and how do you see this book in relation to those two?

A:
I created the city of Dempsey, which has been the setting for all three books, because I didn’t want anyone to associate the location with a specific city and think, “Oh this is about Camden, New Jersey” or “This is about Gary, Indiana.” I want people to think of Dempsey as the nearest mid sized city. It’s about urban America. The fictional setting also allows me to invent whatever small realities, political quirks or other customized universalities I want without fear of misrepresentation. Socially tainted fiction like mine should be called Accurate Lying.

I see these books as connected in that each is an exploration of a facet of race relations in urban America. Clockers is about economic survival on the street and the relationship between cops and citizens in a world where people see the police as an occupying army. Freedomland is about racial paranoia, using the kidnapping hoax at the center of the story to write about white America’s readiness to buy the worst assumptions about the black people that live nearby but are not really neighbors (and also how the media is so willing to jump on that particular bandwagon). Samaritan is a much more intimate take. It’s about the Haves reaching out without really understanding what the Have Nots are all about, and the trickiness of trying to connect in a real and meaningful way across the lines of race and class.

Q: Near the beginning of SAMARITAN, Ray has been beaten and left for dead and it is up to a cop (and the reader) to figure out whodunit. Is SAMARITAN a mystery? A novel of suspense? Or something else?

A:
Like many writers before me, I find that the basic structure of a police investigation offers a natural framework for writing about almost any aspect of human nature with the built-in bonuses of criminally bad behavior and a strip-tease of gradually revealed identities. But this is not a “mystery,” or a detective novel. Of course I want people to fall into the book, to be eager to know what happens next, but Samaritan, like Clockers and Freedomland, is more of a “whydunit” than a whodunit. The social fabric, the background tapestry of everyday life is important, if not more so than the actual misdeed that propels the story.

Q: Nerese is convinced that Ray’s humanitarianism comes from a need to feel good about himself. As she says, “You need too much to be liked. . . That’s a bad weakness to have. It makes you reckless. And it makes you dangerous.” Is she right? Can the impulse to do good ever be free of a certain narcissism?

A:
In terms of doing good deeds or extending yourself to others, I would imagine for most people there is something coming back to them in terms of “well, this is one way to get to heaven.” No interaction of this nature is ever completely selfless and certainly there are times when narcissism can poison altruism. Sometimes it’s very hard to find the line between delivering to people what you promised and leaving them feeling seduced and abandoned.

Q: In Ray, you have created a multi-layered character; the reader often feels both the urge to slap some sense into him and to applaud his noble efforts. How would you prefer for people to react to him by book’s end?

A:
Basically, the guy’s an unregenerate human being, which is to say, like everyone else his ass is three and a half feet from his head. He’s a weak, needy but good-hearted person with too much power in too small a world. He has a hard time seeing the selfishness drizzled through his acts of selflessness but he means well, so. . .

Q: Are there any similarities between you and the character Ray?

A:
Although this is a work of fiction it is obviously informed by a lot of my life experiences. In the course of doing the work for Freedomland and Clockers I found myself, in exchange for information or access into people lives, offering up anything - from money to jobs to simple human company to whatever would make it seem a fair exchange. And I also found myself doing a lot of pro-bono teaching.

I’ve given Ray many of the external elements of my life. We both grew up in public housing projects, had a history with drugs, and basically made our way out in the course of our lives through writing. We both grew up in a racially mixed environment - in the 1950s and 1960s, at least in New York City, housing projects were as close to “melting pots” as America would ever see.

And to this day I find myself, for a million different reasons, going back to the projects where I was raised and will occasionally, like Ray, drag one of my daughters along with me.

Q: This novel deals with what one character calls “the enormity of small things;” how the smallest gesture of kindness can have immeasurable effects. Have you had such an experience in your own life?

A:
Obviously, we’re all a product of our upbringing, schooled in how to be, who to be by the people that raised us. Yet, if the timing is right someone coming along and reaching out in a way that goes completely against the grain of that instruction, can be an earthshaking experience. As for myself, there were certain people, teachers for the most part, who have occasionally but lastingly turned my world upside down, although I imagine most of them weren’t aware of the impact they were having on me.

Q: Storytelling features prominently in SAMARITAN–in Ray’s relationships with Ruby and his students; in his role as father, teacher, and television writer. What is the power of storytelling in daily life, especially for kids?

A:
Sometimes it is easier for people to express their feelings towards others by sharing small stories that have always been close to their heart, these narratives a kind of long hand for “I love you.” Everyone, no matter what age, no matter how limited their experience or education, can tell a dozen great stories and usually they center around the mythology of their family. What makes them great is not that they are true or false or even well told, but that these anecdotes have been living inside them all their lives and when offered up they’re like giving a piece of your soul.

Q: The World Trade Center appears on the sidelines in this novel, its absence an integral part of the city as Ray gazes across the Hudson from his terrace. Did you feel it was important to somehow incorporate the events of 9/11 in the novel?

A:
Writing a book about the New York area after 9/11 and ignoring what happened is like writing a book about Hawaii in late December, 1941 and ignoring Pearl Harbor. The question becomes: How do you integrate it without exploiting it? And how do you integrate it without losing sight of what you were writing about before September 11th?

Q: The family units that appear in your novel are non-traditional: single-parent, inter-racial, and joint-custody. Would you say that this contributes to the problems many of the characters experience?

A:
I’m so used to non-traditional family units that I wasn’t even aware I was creating them. Sometimes I feel like a two parent house is as exotic as any other type of arrangement.

Q: Ray is a white guy who in SAMARITAN operates in a mostly black world. You are a white guy who covers racial territory and captures experiences many would shy away from. What has made you want to explore this terrain?

A:
The whole notion of being white and creating black characters is a non-issue to me. A writer’s job is to imagine lives not his or her own so no race no gender no sexual preference, no religion should be out of bounds. The only mandate is that whoever you create on paper should be a multi-dimensional, full-blooded human being.

I choose to write novels with strong racial elements because race is the heart and soul of American history, race relations the great American obsession, and racism the American flu.

Q: What kind of preparation or research went into this novel?

A:
Compared to the last few books there was no real research. Experientially I’d done everything that the character had done. I grew up in public housing, made my mark in Hollywood, taught in urban public schools. I’ve also spent alot of time with cops and around housing projects for the better part of the last fifteen years, because I believe in what Jimmy Breslin once said regarding Damon Runyon, “He did what all good reporters do. He hung out.”

Author Q&A

Richard Price spent time with a real-life detective to help to make his fictional police detective in Samaritan a believable character. He also admits that the main character is very much like himself. Clearly, using reality to create fiction paid off. "There are literally a hundred places in the book where I said to myself, 'Yeah! That's how things look, that's how people act and talk, I believe this," Stephen King wrote in a letter to Price's editor. But where is the line between fact and fiction when an author works the way Price does? Read on and watch the three video clips below for a glimpse into his personal writing process.

Praise

Praise

“A whodunit with substance and suspense…Price is known for terrific dialogue, and there are moments when you feel as if you are listening to [his characters] speak, not just reading words on a page…It’s the most interesting kind of mystery–one in which the villain is not so easy to spot even when we know who committed the crime.”
–Anne Stephenson, USA Today

“Engaging…provocative…Price has a fine ear for the subtle tension between sentimentality and real devotion, and he understands the way that chronic black poverty plays into the needs of ‘the selflessly selfish.’ If this is a novel that raps the knuckles of a helping hand, it’s nonetheless one to grab on to.”
–Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor

“It’s a tribute to Price’s originality that [his] characters become as distinct and real as they do…Well-intentioned Ray [is] enigmatic and fresh…Price has a great way with dialogue, [and] a better-developed-than-usual sense of structure. Samaritan unfolds on twin time tracks, [and the] carpentry works…Price’s revelation of the culprit is absolutely consistent with his characters and thematically right on the money…Anyone who thinks fiction or literature too small a shelf to include the other stands to learn a lot from Richard Price.”
–David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle

“Giving new meaning to the term “inner city,” Price yields up not just the familiar, blanched moonscape of urban blight but the inner lives and jackhammering hearts of those who pace and patrol it.”
The New Yorker

“A dream of a book…a supremely suspenseful novel (with a denouement that will leave you marveling at how artfully the author kept us from guessing the perpetrator’s identity), but to call it a thriller would be selling it short. Part police procedural, part high-wire psychodrama, part social study, it’s a wholly engrossing hybrid that packs an emotional wallop….”
–Tom Sinclair, Entertainment Weekly

“Dazzling…The perfect pace of a superb storyteller is but one of the gifts Mr. Price brings to Samaritan. Razor-sharp dialogue is another, as well as his urban-poetic descriptive flair. It all makes for an extraordinary novel, with the gritty plot of a hard-edged thriller and the cosmic concerns of a streetcorner Dostoyevsky.”
–Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal

“A whodunit only in format, Samaritan is that rarity, a novel of race relations written with authority, panache and heart.”
–Dan Cryer, Newsday

“Powerful…Wise…The novel is alive because writers like Price are crafting books like Samaritan, about a guy who discovers the hard way what a complicated transactions charity can be…For all the homework that went into Clockers, Price was never a dealer or a cop. But he has been what Ray is in Samaritan, an intruder in other people’s lives. His fellow feeling with this character goes deep. What he knows about Ray you don’t learn by researching the streets. Instead, you prowl your own heart. It’s one more beat that Price knows how to walk with authority.”
–Richard Lecayo, Time

“Without dictating Price’s fiction, reality inspires his imagination, provoking a finely detailed and immensely readable inquiry into what might be called the double nature of benevolence…Where a typical crime novel would traffic in surprises and twists, Price has always eschewed the formula. The wisdom and impact of his recent books derive from his insight into just how unspectacular crime can be. The perpetrators in Price’s fiction act less out of passion or greed than drudgery and shattered hope…On the narrative journey from mystery to resolution, Price demonstrates his usual gifts for dialogue, detail and empathetic portraiture…When a novelist stays that close to the ground, there is no confusing illusion with actuality…Wrenching.”
–Samuel G. Freedman, Chicago Tribune (front page)

“Price is renowned for in-your-face fiction: violent, fast-paced, yet morally complex…He’s also demonstrated a flair for believable dialogue and visual detail…[Samaritan is] another of Price’s first-rate urban morality plays–a compassionate, politically savvy whodunit that reads like Dostoevsky circa 2003…He proves himself to be one of our best chroniclers of big-city experience.”
–Paul Evans, Book

“A full-to-bursting package held together by a strong, suspenseful plot… Unknowability is the key to Ray Mitchell, the essence of what makes him such a fascinating saint…Ray is preternaturally alert, alive to the mental states of those around him. Price, through Ray’s alertness, gives even minor characters a real, if temporary, being. And yet–and here’s the miracle–because it’s Ray’s alertness, the novel, though various and populous, feels centered on his character and therefore strong. Price does this in few words. It’s not a function of I.Q. It’s not articulate. It’s more like a prickling of the flesh…A demographic epic filled with little people who command true human feeling…”
–Mark Costello, New York Times

“Price’s seventh novel ranks with the best of the others…His books have the gutsy appeal of the classiest hard-boiled mysteries: fast pace, tripping idiomatic dialogue, unpredictable plot swerves, zingy sex, and genuine suspense…But [Samaritan] also possesses philosophical breadth, clearheaded social commentary, and a fine facility with language…Price’s vivid documentation may tease us into thinking we are in Dempsy, New Jersey, but in fact we are in existentialist territory… So quirky a mix of virtues makes [Price] unique…Terrific.”
–Lynne Sharon Schwartz, The New Leader

“[Samaritan] hurtles along like the PATH train that traverses Price’s urban landscape, weaving back and forth, before and after the severe beating of Ray Mitchell [whose] complexity is matched by the detective investigating the crime…Price’s dialogue rings true throughout, and his sense of place is solid and of the moment.”
–Ellen Rubin, Elle

“Price is not just a gifted writer but also one who thinks long and hard about human behavior...We know from page one that we’re in good hands, with masterful detail, vivid scene-setting, and acutely observed, naturalistic dialogue. The crime-solving framework pulls us forward but is unencumbered by the pedantic detail of a police procedural, and the depth of the characterizations is magnificent: [The main characters] and the considerable supporting cast are fully imagined beings who surprise us but never test our credulity. Enmeshed in this taut storytelling is a meditation on the complicated nature of giving, and a caution that, with ill-considered charity, we can hurt others even when we think we’re doing them a favor. Superb.”
–Keir Graff, Booklist (starred and boxed review)

“Richard Price is, without a doubt, one of our greatest living novelists. His voice is comic, skeptical, and at all times, deeply humane. Samaritan is a masterpiece, a novel that is actually about–surprise of surprises–the world we live in now. Violent, tender, hilarious, and heartbreaking, it is a world that, in Price’s hands, is so ably rendered that even its smallest truths attain the power of universal myth.”
–Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River

“It seems to me that Richard Price has taken his gifts for rendering human speech and for describing the jittery uncertainty of life at the bottom, and created a narrative filled with the sweet despair such as would come from angels looking down on us and watching us suffer.”
–Scott Spencer

“The great literature of the world is derived from the mean streets, and no American writer knows them better, or can drive a story line harder, than Richard Price. Samaritan burns, not only with stylistic eloquence but with relentless certainty–from each richly evocative scene, each amazingly felt character, to the next. Price writes the way an architect builds, sketching out his plan, thinking it over to the most minute details. Thus the foundations of Samaritan are so fundamentally valid that its presentation is a masterpiece of the form. Price has artfully concealed a haunting treatise on the nuances and ambiguities of human decency, compassion, and generosity in the guise of a superlative thriller. Samaritan is Price’s best book to date.”
–Thom Jones, author of The Pugilist at Rest

“One has come to expect from Richard Price, the most brilliant of sardonic ironists, an eye for revelation in the commonplace, even a kind of modern social history. But Samaritan is also a subtle story of seduction and abandonment, of the dangerous luxury of responsibility, and the risks that are inevitable when one is capable of love.”
–Susanna Moore, author of In the Cut

“The mastery of urban melodrama that Price demonstrated in literate blockbusters like Clockers (1992) and Freedomland (1998) keeps growing and deepening–as evidenced in [this] story of a neighborhood and of conflicting ways of life…A virtuoso alternation of advancing action with detailed flashbacks shows how…this mystery raises troublesome ghosts from the past, while also introducing a boldly drawn gallery of involved and potentially guilty characters...A ferocious admixture of bleak wit and sorrowful compassion…The story positively vibrates with Price’s trademark virtues of pinpoint observation and punchy dialogue…And the killer climax and ironic denouement couldn’t be improved upon. Magnificent stuff. If Elmore Leonard broke out of genre and were 30 years younger, he’d be Richard Price.”
Kirkus (starred review)

“Richard Price’s Samaritan is gripping, ambitious, and resonant entertainment, everything you hope to find in an American novel and so rarely do. This is the work of a fiercely honest writer at the top of his game.” –George Pelecanos, author of Hell to Pay

“I read Richard Price for the cool, spare sound of his writing, his words, the language he has in his bag that fits so exactly in his settings. The characters talk the talk; the main one, Nerese Ammons, a gem, 20 years a cop in the NY-NJ iron triangle, lays open the plot, scene after scene, at a beautiful pace. Richard Price has written a terrific novel.” –Elmore Leonard

Samaritan blew my mind . . . I don’t think anyone ever sent me a book in hopes of a comment that was this good . . . An absolutely riveting story. The reader is hooked from the first page . . .” –Stephen King

“The mastery of urban melodrama that Price demonstrated in literate blockbusters like Clockers (1992) and Freedomland (1998) keeps growing and deepening–as evidenced in [this] story of a neighborhood and of conflicting ways of life…A virtuoso alternation of advancing action with detailed flashbacks shows how…this mystery raises troublesome ghosts from the past, while also introducing a boldly drawn gallery of involved and potentially guilty characters...A ferocious admixture of bleak wit and sorrowful compassion…The story positively vibrates with Price’s trademark virtues of pinpoint observation and punchy dialogue…And the killer climax and ironic denouement couldn’t be improved upon. Magnificent stuff. If Elmore Leonard broke out of genre and were 30 years younger, he’d be Richard Price.” –Kirkus (starred review)

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“An extraordinary novel, with the gritty plot of a hard-edged thriller and the cosmic concerns of a street-corner Dostoyevsky.” —The Wall Street Journal

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Richard Price’s Samaritan which, like Clockers and Freedomland, is set in the troubled urban community of Dempsy, New Jersey. We hope they will give you a number of useful angles from which to consider this gripping novel.

About the Guide

After his lucrative television writing career comes to an abrupt end, ex-high school teacher Ray Mitchell returns to the New Jersey city of his birth—to rethink his life, reconnect with his teenage daughter, and to spread the wealth on the housing project that reared him. He begins teaching again, embarks on an affair with a married woman from the old neighborhood, and becomes a mentor to a former student recently released from jail.

Then, disaster: he is found beaten nearly to death in his own apartment. He knows who did it, but he’s not talking, and he refuses to press charges. It is up to Detective Nerese Ammons—a childhood acquaintance from the projects—to get Ray to tell her what happened.

As she investigates the people in Ray’s life most likely to do him harm and listens to his fevered ramblings about their shared past as he slips in and out of consciousness, Nerese is charged not only with uncovering the perpetrator of this assault but with understanding what kind of victim is more afraid of the truth than of his potential murderer.

The Washington Post Book World has hailed Richard Price as having “the best equipment a novelist can have—that combination of muscularity, insight and compassion we might call heart.” Samaritan is an electrifying story of crime and punishment, of character and place, of children and their keepers—a novel of literary suspense that explores what happens when, caught up in the drama of one’s own generosity, too little is given, too little is understood, and the results threaten to prove both tragic and deadly.

About the Author

Richard Price grew up in the Bronx. He studied industrial design at Cornell University and writing at Columbia and Stanford. His first novel, The Wanderers, was published when he was just twenty-four. He is the author of seven novels, including the national bestsellers Freedomland and Clockers, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1999 he received an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His fiction, articles, and essays have appeared in Best American Essays 2002, The New Yorker, Esquire, The Village Voice, and Rolling Stone. He has written numerous screenplays, including Sea of Love, Ransom, and The Color of Money. He has also taught writing in schools in Jersey City and Newark. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, the painter Judith Hudson, and their two daughters.

Discussion Guides

1. The novel begins as Ray tells his daughter Ruby a story from his boyhood in the Hopewell Houses. What is the significance of such stories for Ray? How good a storyteller is he? What is the effect of framing the plot within the story of Tweetie’s injury and his attempt to help her?

2. Chapter 5 gives an account of the information Bobby Sugar has gathered on Ray, including credit card charges and bank withdrawals, medical history, employment, address changes, etc. What does this chapter tell us about the way police detectives shape their view of a person and his or her possible motivations? How is that process similar to, or different from, the way a novelist creates a character?

3. Compare the book’s epigraph from Matthew 6:1–3 to the scene in which Ray, with Ruby present, gives Carla a check for the full amount of her son’s funeral [p. 109]. Ray’s ex-wife Claire comments, “Ray likes to save people, you know, sweep them off their feet with his generosity. It’s a cheap high if you’ve got the money, but basically it’s all about him” [p. 125]. How serious is this flaw in Ray’s character, and why does Price make Ray’s desire to help the novel’s central theme?

4. What is the effect of the novel’s structure—with chapters moving back and forth in time—on your reading experience? Why might Price have chosen to construct the plot in this way?

5. In one of Nerese’s many moments of insight, she muses about Ray:

“The constant white-black casting made her uncomfortable—no, made her angry; but that anger was tempered by the intuition that this compulsion in him wasn’t really about race; that the element of race, the chronic hard times and neediness of poor blacks and Latinos was primarily a convenience here, the schools and housing projects of Dempsy and other places like a stocked pond in which he could act out his selfish selflessness over and over…and that he was so driven by this need, so swept away by it, that he would heedlessly, helplessly risk his life to see it played out each and every time until he finally drew the ace of spades, or swords, and got the obituary that would vindicate him, bring tears to his eyes; key word, ‘beloved,’ if only he could figure out some way to come back from the dead long enough to read it.” [p. 215]

In Nerese’s view, Ray is driven primarily by narcissism, by an obsessive desire to be needed and to be thanked. Is her observation correct? Does this motive outweigh the good that Ray tries to do?

6. How incisive is Price as an analyst of race relations? In his desire to “give back,” is there any way for Ray to be comfortable about race, to enter his old community as an affluent white man offering help? Does Ray recognize that in giving Carla the money for the funeral he humiliates her, winning her resentment rather than her gratitude [pp. 109–110]?

7. Is Nerese the moral and emotional anchor of the novel? Why or why not? Given that she and Ray have come from the same place, how have they handled their lives differently? What are the differences in psychology of these two characters? What motivates them?

8. Discuss the relationship between Ruby and Nelson, two children of nearly the same age who are thrown together by Ray and Danielle’s sexual liaison. Why does Ruby refuse to apologize to Nelson when she hits him with the softball? What is the meaning of the story Ruby shares with Ray’s writing class [pp. 353–54]? Why does Price make children such a crucial part of the story?

9. Is Ray exploiting Danielle, or is she exploiting him in their sexual relationship? What motivates Danielle to involve herself and her son with Ray? She sees herself as an independent and self-motivated woman; Ray sees her as a woman who has chosen to stay in a marriage with a drug dealer [pp. 198–201]. Who is right?

10. Samaritan is a drama of redemption, or self-redemption. Why is shame referred to as one of Ray’s defining characteristics? Does he have good reason to feel ashamed of himself? Why does Ray need to redeem himself? How successful is he in his efforts to do so?

11. Who is the most likely suspect for the crime against Ray—Salim, Freddy Martinez, Danielle? To what degree is suspense—the “whodunit” quality—important in a novel like this?

12. How does the character of Salim come across? Why does Samaritan end with Salim, and a chapter called “Thank You” [pp. 370–77]?

13. Discuss Chapter 32, in which Nerese and Ray tell each other about their future plans. What do we learn about Nerese’s past and the way it shaped her life? What is she trying to tell Ray about adults’ responsibility to children? Does it seem that Nerese will be happier once she retires from the police department?

14. In a blurb for the hardcover Elmore Leonard stated, “I read Richard Price for the cool, spare sound of his writing, his words, the language he has in his bag that fits so exactly in his settings. The characters talk the talk.” Do you agree with his assessment? Find a few passages that exemplify Price’s strengths as a stylist and discuss their qualities with your group.

15. With Samaritan, Richard Price again reveals himself to be committed to writing novels that awaken his readers to raw and painful social problems. Charles Taylor commented:

“It seems to me that in reporting on some of society’s bedrock institutions (in this case, prisons and the police) and on communities that many of us are either cut off from or see solely in terms of social problems (thus robbing the inhabitants of their individuality) Price is doing work that we should expect from our major novelists. . . . Though Samaritan is his bleakest book, you put it down convinced he is trying to find, in the midst of racial and economic divisions, the things that we share. He’s the reporter-novelist as despairing humanist.” [Salon.com]

How powerful is Samaritan’s social vision? Does it have a message or a lesson for its readers? What questions and issues does the novel leave unresolved?

Suggested Readings

Tom Barbash, The Last Good Chance; Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment; Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man; Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex; William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses; Richard Ford, Independence Day; Nick Hornby, How to Be Good; Elmore Leonard, City Primeval; Richard Russo, Empire Falls; Hubert Selby Jr., Last Exit to Brooklyn; Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities.

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