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Selfishly Selfless

Price pays price for annoying main character

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The Samaritan
By Richard Price
(Walker & Co.,
304 pages, $28)

Richard Price's new novel, Samaritan, succeeds in bringing fresh meaning to the phrase "give till it hurts." In this story, every gift comes with strings attached. And when the main protagonist gives, everybody hurts -- sadly, that includes the reader, who suffers the unbearable lightness of this character's being and the overlong study of his hard lesson (not likely) learned.Price's "hero" is former TV writer/ex-high school teacher/recovering cokehead Ray Mitchell, who returns to his native city of Dempsy, New Jersey, ostensibly to reconnect with his teenage daughter who had previously taken a back seat to his coke habit. Mitchell sobered up and accumulated a nice fat bank account from his television years -- his show documented the travails of an inner-city school much like the one Mitchell attended and taught at -- and seems intent on indiscriminately spreading the wealth, particularly at the housing project that spawned him.

But Mitchell's largesse is borne of all the wrong motives, primarily his ever-present desperate need to be liked. One of the novel's twin narratives is built around the assault that leaves Mitchell in the ICU with severe head trauma, courtesy of yet another misguided attempt to please. The story's other narrative is handled by detective Nerese Ammons, a friend of Mitchell's from the projects whose interest in solving the case is closely tied to a good turn Mitchell did her when they were children.

The novel's tension stems from the fact that Mitchell knows who brained him, but he's not talking. This turns Samaritan into a whodunit with several possible suspects: is it the married woman from the projects whom Mitchell's knocking boots with? Her ex-con husband, who's only recently been released? The struggling art student/crackhead for whom Mitchell plays the human ATM?

Certainly Price wants us to feel ambivalent about Mitchell, but Mr. Altruism is so clueless, so inept, and so damned needy, many readers will wish they'd administered the blow themselves. For instance:

* Mitchell gives back to his school by teaching a writing class to young teens pro bono; what sort of gift this is in unclear, as his "manic spritzing" teaching method includes "wildly inappropriate" anecdotes and wisecracks that reflect his "nightclub approach to education." Mitchell views the student/teacher relationship as "romances of a sort," imagining the kids thinking about him outside of class. Mitchell recognizes this as "narcissistic" and "self-aggrandizing," but what good is self-awareness if you continue behaving like a jackass?

* Mitchell's parenting methods oscillate between more inappropriate behavior -- sharing "image after image of catastrophe-stunned women" and dead bodies from Weegee's World with his 9-year-old daughter -- and clumsy attempts to impress, culminating in his offer to pay for the funeral of someone he didn't know. Sounds altruistic, but his ex-wife has Mitchell figured out: "Ray, he overparents. Overthinks, overreacts, overagonizes. . .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."

* Mitchell's affair with the married woman is uncomfortably connected with his romanticized memories about his life in the tenements. It begs the question of just exactly whom he's making love to when the woman, as the "gatekeeper of this intimate knowledge," represents the "secret history of his childhood world, the mouths, eyes, bodies and scents of others. . .and therefore the secret history, marginally at least, of himself."

Creepy, no? In contrast to Mitchell's overwhelming narcissism, Ammons' devotion to her less-than-functional family is the real thing. And, as Mitchell regales her with the shining moment of his TV days when he pinch hit for an AWOL actor and played the role of high school savior to a troubled student, Ammons suddenly realizes Mitchell's modus operandi:

"The schools and housing projects of Dempsy and other places (were) like a stocked pond in which he could act out his selfish selflessness over and over. . .he was so driven by this need, so swept away by it, that he would heedlessly, helplessly risk his life. . .until he finally. . . got the obituary that would vindicate him. . .if only he could figure out some way to come back from the dead long enough to read it."

Price earned his stripes with gritty portrayals of tenement life in novels like Clockers and Freedomland, and while there are similar aspects in Samaritan to be admired, all the gritty realism in the world can't overcome the Trojan Horse that Price has given us in Ray Mitchell.

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