Freedomland
By Richard Price
Broadway; 512 pages; $25

Six years after the critically acclaimed "Clockers, Richard Price, author of "The Wanderers" and "The Breaks," returns to the same gritty, fictional turf, Dempsy, New Jersey.

A white single mother named Brenda Martin staggers into the emergency room of the Dempsy Medical Center, panic-stricken and bleeding from two badly lacerated hands. Lorenzo Council, the black police detective who catches the case, figures she might be an addict assaulted while trying to make a buy. But during a long and frustrating interview , Brenda Martin finally tells him that she was carjacked by a black man, and that her four-year-old son was asleep in the back seat of the vehicle.

In an effort to prevent the carjacker from leaving the area,, the police cordon off the Henry T. Armstrong Houses, disrupting the lives of everyone who lives in the projects, drug dealers and upstanding citizens alike. Brenda Martin's brother Danny turns out to be a cop in the neighboring city, and his hot-headed and heavy-handed attempts to find a suspect serve only to inflame the rising tempers.

Known affectionately as "Big Daddy," Lorenzo Council is the peacekeeper at Armstrong Houses, the voice of reason when everyone else is screaming mad. A former drug user burdened by his failure to keep his own son out of trouble, he gets along with almost everyone, except for his long-suffering spouse. Price writes, "...because although he didn't have a particularly hard time admitting to most people when he was wrong, somehow he knew that if he apologized to Frankie for anything, no matter how small, the dam would break and he'd wind up apologizing to her nonstop for the rest of their lives together, each apology for a transgression greater than the one preceding it, all apologies leading to the big one: Jason in jail."

Suspecting that Brenda Martin is lying, but afraid to push her too hard, Council reluctantly enlists the aid of Jesse Haus, a white reporter for the local paper. Haus has gained Brenda's trust by pretending to have a young son of her own. Lonely, poorly paid and ambitious, Haus compounds her indefensible lie in the pursuit of real, no-holds-barred experience. Price writes, "And there were those, and in this group Jesse included herself, who were addicted to something she thought of as the Infilling -- the compulsive hankering to witness, to absorb, to taste human behavior in extremis; the desire to embrace, to be filled with, no matter how fleetingly, the power of human grief, human rage; to experience it over and over; to absorb the madness of others, the commitment of others..."

By presenting the case largely through the experiences of Council and Haus, Price provides the reader with exactly that kind of "Infilling." With a perceptive eye for detail and an acute ear for the rhythms of ordinary speech, he delivers a convincing portrait a community on the brink of violence, where agendas are usually hidden and motives impossibly tangled. Politics and race play their inevitable parts in the drama, but it is the bonds between parents and children that ultimately reveal the characters at both their best and worst.

"Freedomland" works just fine as a straight-ahead police procedural, longer than most, but with enough twists and surprises to keep the reader thoroughly involved. Price, however, imbues his latest work with a richness of character, theme and incident that places it far above the ordinary crime novel. Dempsy proves well worth a second visit, and one hopes that Price has still more to write about this complex, entirely credible place.

(c) 1998 by Michael Berry


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