"Freedomland," by Richard Price. Broadway Books. 512 pages. $25.
Ripped from today's headlines!" That's how the hot quote for some book that presumably echoes the latest dirt in the daily press is supposed to read. And usually, you'd just as soon rip out such a book's pages for the bottom of the parakeet cage. But Richard Price has indeed taken one of the most gruesome tabloid stories of the '90s and turned it into a smart and serious vehicle that, for the most part, rips along throughout his sixth novel, "Freedomland."
Unlike the awful story of South Carolinian mother/child-murderer Susan Smith that "Freedomland" is explicitly based on, Price's novel is set in the imaginary New Jersey slum of Dempsey, where his last book, "Clockers," also took place. Price abhors and adores Dempsey, its junkies, cops and crazies.
One steamy summer night, Brenda Martin, a dazed and injured white woman, is admitted to the local metropolitan hospital. Gradually she tells the tale of her ordeal. Her car was "jacked" by a black male, and, far worse, her 4- year-old son is sleeping in the back seat.
The trauma of the lost child is gut-wrenching, but the racial element gives the plot a particular twist. It shouldn't make a difference if the inadvertent kidnapper is black or white, but it did in the South and it does in the literally and metaphorically overheated atmosphere of Dempsey.
Immediately the forces of both law and media come into play. Along with a swarm of other police and journalists, veteran detective Lorenzo Council and female reporter Jesse Haus are on the case. Both of them are keenly aware that Brenda may be lying. They fear for young Cody Martin if Brenda is telling the truth, and for the city if she is not.
Price catches the physical decrepitude and "tangible sadness" of Dempsey with the same blunt veracity and occasional bloatedness of Theodore Dreiser or John Dos Passos. He gives us every aspect of the gritty urban scene down to the strips of magnetic tape worn by young "jugglers" or dealers. And though the book is clearly plot-driven - we turn pages to find out 1) Did Brenda kill her own son? and 2) Will Dempsey explode? Price also portrays his characters with a balance of rigor and generosity. No matter what prize these people are reaching for - be it as pure as social justice, as splashy as tomorrow's front page, or as tender as a kiss, "like, like 1966" - he presents them with a true moralist's compassion.
Maybe that's why, when the major question is answered well before the end of the book, the last hundred pages of "Freedomland" do not seem anti-climactic. Instead, life goes on and likewise we keep reading with the same fascination as we do the tabs, for a portrait of the world we inhabit now. In an age when the American novel has fled into meager minimalism or ascended into high fabulism, Price may be one of the last social realists.
Melvin Jules Bukiet is the author of four books. His forthcoming novel, "Signs and Wonders," will be published next year. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
Pub Date: 5/17/98