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The Boston Phoenix Stick 'Em Up

Richard Price holds readers hostage in a gripping but exasperating novel about race and crime.

By Richard C. Walls

JUNE 15, 1998: 

FREEDOMLAND, by Richard Price. Broadway Books, 546 pages, $25.

With his previous novel, Clockers, Richard Price used his well-developed gift for seamy reportage and his knack for veristic melodrama to focus on the thorny topic of race. Structured like a whodunit, the novel moved at a fast clip despite its length, propelled by a tensely bifurcated story line and the author's flawless ear for the darting rhythms and evasive poetry of African-American dialect. Freedomland is in many ways a follow-up. The main setting once again is the black housing project of a fictional New Jersey city, and the novel revisits the bent and broken lives of people living under -- and with -- the burden of racial animosity. But while Clockers had an inexorable momentum, Freedomland dips and sags and once too often, fatally, stops. It's an ordeal to read, and not in the sense that the author intended.

The story revolves around the distraught figure of Brenda Martin, who claims to be the victim of a carjacking and unintentional kidnapping; her four-year-old son, she says, was asleep in the back seat of the car at the time. Brenda is white and the carjacker she describes is black; recognizing the similarities between this and the infamous Susan Smith case, we are primed to suspect she is lying. The alleged carjacking has occurred on the border of a white suburb and a black housing project, and Brenda, who lives in the former and works in the latter, quickly becomes a symbol to both communities of their worst suspicions. She is either another victim of rampant black crime or another white person cold-heartedly playing the race card.

But Brenda doesn't fit either stereotype. There's a calmness at the heart of her traumatized condition that seems inappropriate for someone whose child's fate is still undetermined. And yet her previous history, which includes working as a teacher with the children in the project, doesn't indicate that she is the sort of person who would construct a racist fantasy.

Brenda's case has fallen into the lap of Lorenzo Council, a black cop who works in the project. Council is a typically flawed Price hero, big and bearish and basically decent, trying to get by in a screwed-up world (since the movie rights for the book have already been purchased, one automatically thinks of Yaphet Kotto, or perhaps Charles S. Dutton). Council did the initial interview with Brenda in the hospital emergency room, and though he's suspicious, there's something about her that causes him to hold back judgment. A third character, Jesse Haus, a female reporter with a carapace of cynical grit (Jennifer Jason Leigh would be good), also becomes involved with Brenda, and it's through her and Council's eyes that we gather the evidence to draw our own conclusions.

This is a great setup, and the first half of the book is pretty compelling. We're keyed to get to the bottom of the mysterious Brenda Martin, and Council -- part sage and part blundering oaf -- is excellent company. The world of the Jersey housing project, though now familiar from Clockers, is keenly observed, and Price has perfected a sort of hard-boiled gothic style that throbs with menace, as in this description of a blighted jailhouse:

The Dempsy County jail stood half demolished, and the only surviving section of exterior wall, the southwest corner, was a grotesquely defiant crumble of plaster and brick, a raised fist thrust into the flawless blue of a hot summer morning. . . . A century's worth of graffiti, startlingly legible to anyone walking by, marked the plaster backwalls, a titanic bulletin board shot up from hell.

But once the situation and characters are in place, the familiar ground starts to become overly familiar, with too many reiterations of the "grotesquely defiant" scenery and too many colorful characters standing between us and the resolution of the story's central mystery. One can appreciate how painstakingly Price has painted his panorama of modern types, from cowboy cops to media hustlers, yet feel annoyed by the protracted dangling of the basic question: did the carjacking actually occur?

The worst damming of the narrative flow comes with a long section devoted to the Friends of Kent, an ad hoc support group of similar sufferers that attaches itself to Brenda, either to help her find her son or to subtly torture the truth out of her -- a process described in such minute detail as to torture the reader as well. Then, once the nagging puzzle is solved, the Friends are dropped, and racial politics are picked up again for another hundred pages or so of flaccid anticlimax.

There's a good shorter novel in here, and perhaps that's what we'll see when the book finally makes it to the screen. Meanwhile, Price can't seem to make up his mind whether he wants to be a Zolaesque chronicler of human misery or just tell a ripping yarn with socially relevant reverberations. Freedomland tries to do both; as a result, an initially enticing mystery loses steam as it sinks into the novel's overreaching sprawl.

Richard C. Walls is a freelance writer living in Michigan.

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