Excerpted from Samaritan by Richard Price. Copyright © 2003 by Richard Price. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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.”
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.
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?