I see that the very gifted Richard Price has a new book out, The Whites, about cop life in New York City. He says he meant in the beginning to knock it out under what used to be called a nom de plume to make a few bucks – hack work, in short. Not that he needs the money. He’s made a mint off of The Wire, other TV series and movie work, and owns a five-story brownstone in the Big Apple. Instead, he ended up devoting years to it, nearly as much time as on Lush Life, an acclaimed 2009 novel that took five years, and it has both his real name and the pseudonym on the cover.
I’d rank Price in the Top Ten of American novelists today. It is clear he couldn’t write a second-rate book if they waterboarded him. Cop fiction is a genre and the high priests and priestesses of culture can’t hide their preference for that other, less popular genre, the literary novel. If it needed proving – it doesn’t any more – Price shows that a talented artist compels admiration in whatever form he chooses. If he were turn his hand to romances, the one genre still shivering out in the cold with the critical community, he would produce another NYT notable book of the year.
I used to interview visiting authors back in my newspaper days in San Francisco. Price came through town one day promoting one of his novels, and we had the usual guarded chat in his hotel room as a photographer maneuvered for good angles. He had just come back with an armload of science fiction from a used bookstore. It was his favorite reading, he said. I asked a few perfunctory questions about his background as the interview wound up and he suddenly was agitated. I had noticed one of his hands was deformed, but didn’t plan to mention it in my story and didn’t. It turned out it was a birth injury and he blamed his mother, spitting out what seemed to be boiling hatred for her. I didn’t mention that, either. “Whoa,” the photographer said as we went to the car. Is there a writer who came from a well-ordered, secure home full of love and encouragement? I’m not seeing it, but don’t rule out the possibility.
Price’s hand reminds me of Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary under Neville Chamberlain who was first offered the premiership that Winston Churchill accepted to the endless gratitude of posterity. Halifax was born without a hand, I forget which, and went through life wearing a glove stuffed to simulate fingers. His career as a diplomat was largely confined to managing the peril posed by a Germany determined to avenge its defeat in World War I. Kaiser Wilhelm, whose vanity and grandiosity coupled with a block-headed stupidity notable even for a royal, caused that war. He also had a physical deformity, a withered arm. (So did Hitler, come to think of it). The Kaiser’s uniforms – how he loved wearing them ablaze with all his decorations – were tailored to de-emphasis the handicap. As a further means of distracting attention, he grew a lavish moustache that required the full-time attention of a member of his official entourage. The man went everywhere with Kaiser Bill. The Queen of England laughed about it.
I don’t think historians have paid enough attention to the effects of their physical appearance on the great men of history, many of whom were short and strove to compensate. Stalin’s teeth were rotten from childhood, and you can imagine his breath. Putin is another short man, I read an analysis of his baffling behavior, so like Kaiser Wilhelm in a queer way, that suggests he suffers from Asperger syndrome.