I was about to crack open Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel when I saw Richard Price’s bio in the trade paperback of Lush Life. Along with his literary accomplishments it notes his having been “co-writer of HBO’s The Wire”. Thomas Cromwell can wait, I have to read Richard Price.
Price is usually praised for his “wonderful ear for dialogue”. James Wood suggests we praise his wonderful mind for dialogue instead.
Price is particularly good when the flat cynicism of his speakers works against the slight floweriness or literariness of their language. Here, a deputy inspector tells a detective sergeant about the hierarchy, and how the top brass sit on everything:
Berkowitz held up a hand. “Perception, reality, whatever. They’re not happy, and shit rolls downhill. They’re at the peak, I’m like mid-mountain, and you’re in this, this arroyo at the bottom. If I can be any more picturesque than that, let me know.”
“In my father’s house there are many bosses,” Matty said.
“Whatever. Hey, nobody is telling you not to go all out, just do it quietly.”
Fiction has developed in unexpected ways since Elizabeth Bowen commanded, in her Notes on Writing a Novel, that the “functional use of dialogue for the plot must be the first thing in the novelist’s mind. Where functional usefulness cannot be established, dialogue must be left out.” Bowen counsels precise selection, following, in this respect, Edith Wharton, who also disliked novelists who “used irrelevant small-talk, in the hope of thus producing a greater air of reality.” Many contemporary novelists use dialogue precisely as small talk: as verismo-filler, giving us a comfy, televisual sense of the already known.
But Price is both a drifter and a selector. His dialogue, partly because there is so much of it in his books, is really a very long ribbon of small talk; but it is highly functional, always pushing on not only the plot (the least interesting aspect of his writing) but our sense of his characters. . .