Synopses & Reviews
After a lucrative television writing career comes to an abrupt end, ex-high school teacher Ray Mitchell returns to the New Jersey city of his birth to rethink his life, reconnect with his teenage daughter, and to spread the wealth on the housing project that reared him. He begins teaching again, embarks on an affair with a married woman from the old neighborhood, and becomes a mentor to a former student recently released from jail.
Then, disaster: he is found beaten nearly to death in his own apartment. He knows who did it, but he's not talking, and he refuses to press charges.
It is up to Detective Nerese Ammons a childhood acquaintance from the projects to get Ray to tell her what happened.
Alternating between investigations of the people in Ray's life most likely to do him harm and listening to his fevered ramblings about their shared past as he slips in and out of consciousness, Nerese is charged not only with uncovering the perpetrator of this assault but with understanding what kind of victim is more afraid of the truth than of his potential murderer.
The Washington Post Book World has hailed Richard Price as having "the best equipment a novelist can have that combination of muscularity, insight and compassion we might call heart." Samaritan is an electrifying story of crime and punishment, of character and place, of children and their keepers a novel of literary suspense that explores what happens when, caught up in the drama of one's own generosity, too little is given, too little is understood, and the results threaten to prove both tragic and deadly.
"The mastery of urban melodrama that Price demonstrated in literate blockbusters like Clockers and Freedomland keeps growing and deepening....Magnificent stuff. If Elmore Leonard broke out of genre and were 30 years younger, he'd be Richard Price." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"[T]o call it a thriller would be selling it short....The author's forte has always been characterization, and Samaritan can be read by aspiring authors as a note-perfect example of how to make fictional characters jump off the page. (Grade: A)" Tom Sinclair, Entertainment Weekly
"Samaritan blew my mind....I don't think anyone ever sent me a book in hopes of a comment that was this good....An absolutely riveting story. The reader is hooked from the first page." Stephen King
"[A] sprawling cast of highly cinematic characters, an air of pungent menace, a full-to-bursting package held together by a strong, suspenseful plot." Mark Costello, The New York Times Book Review
"Richard Price's most insightful urban drama yet....[A] whodunit of the highest order....Thanks to his vivid documentary-like prose, readers feel what it's like to ride the faulty housing project elevators, to inhale the reek of cigarettes and urine in cinderblock halls." John Freeman, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Giving new meaning to the term 'inner city,' Price yields up not just the familiar, blanched moonscape of urban blight but the inner lives and jackhammering hearts of those who pace and patrol it." The New Yorker
"[T]he voices of the individual characters in Samaritan (as in the two novels that preceded it) are as vivid and immediate as anything offered by his peers, and Price's own voice resonates through these books with a unique combination of weariness and urgency....[I]t seems to me that in reporting on some of society's bedrock institutions (in this case, prisons and the police) and on communities that many of us are either cut off from or see solely in terms of social problems (thus robbing the inhabitants of their individuality) Price is doing work that we should expect from our major novelists....Price focuses on making all his characters vivid, not just Ray and Nerese but the ones who float through a single scene....The characters come alive in a few paragraphs and remain living presences after they depart. And despite a few passages of purely expository dialogue, Price has an ear that is near faultless....Price is trodding on explosive territory. As a good novelist should, even one addressing social issues, Price avoids ideology. And though Samaritan is his bleakest book, you put it down convinced he is trying to find, in the midst of racial and economic divisions, the things that we share. He's the reporter-novelist as despairing humanist." Charles Taylor, Salon.com
"Nobody does urban grit better than Price....[Samaritan] doesn't belie that claim, but it isn't his best, despite some wonderful writing....[W]hile many will enjoy as well as admire the novel, most won't be blown away by it." Publishers Weekly
"Whether celebrating black culture or the struggle of the white working class his signature themes [Price] proves himself to be one of our best chroniclers of big-city experience." Paul Evans, Book magazine
"The crime-solving framework pulls us forward but is unencumbered by the pedantic detail of a police procedural, and the depth of the characterizations is magnificent....Superb." Keir Graff, Booklist (Starred Review)
"A whodunit with substance and suspense....Price is known for terrific dialogue, and there are moments when you feel as if you are listening to [his characters] speak, not just reading words on a page." Anne Stephenson, USA Today
"Powerful....Wise....The novel is alive because writers like Price are crafting books like Samaritan..." Richard Lecayo, Time
"Price has a great way with dialogue, [and] a better-developed-than-usual sense of structure....Anyone who thinks fiction or literature too small a shelf to include the other stands to learn a lot from Richard Price." David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle
"Engaging...provocative....Price has a fine ear for the subtle tension between sentimentality and real devotion, and he understands the way that chronic black poverty plays into the needs of 'the selflessly selfish.'" Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
"A whodunit only in format, Samaritan is that rarity, a novel of race relations written with authority, panache and heart." Dan Cryer, Newsday
"The perfect pace of a superb storyteller is but one of the gifts Mr. Price brings to Samaritan. Razor-sharp dialogue is another....It all makes for an extraordinary novel, with the gritty plot of a hard-edged thriller and the cosmic concerns of a streetcorner Dostoyevsky." Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
"On the narrative journey from mystery to resolution, Price demonstrates his usual gifts for dialogue, detail and empathetic portraiture....When a novelist stays that close to the ground, there is no confusing illusion with actuality." Samuel G. Freedman, Chicago Tribune
"Richard Price is, without a doubt, one of our greatest living novelists. His voice is comic, skeptical, and at all times, deeply humane. Samaritan is a masterpiece, a novel that is actually about surprise of surprises the world we live in now. Violent, tender, hilarious, and heartbreaking, it is a world that, in Price's hands, is so ably rendered that even its smallest truths attain the power of universal myth." Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River
"It seems to me that Richard Price has taken his gifts for rendering human speech and for describing the jittery uncertainty of life at the bottom, and created a narrative filled with the sweet despair such as would come from angels looking down on us and watching us suffer." Scott Spencer, author of A Ship Made of Paper
"The great literature of the world is derived from the mean streets, and no American writer knows them better, or can drive a story line harder, than Richard Price. Samaritan burns, not only with stylistic eloquence but with relentless certainty from each richly evocative scene, each amazingly felt character, to the next. Price writes the way an architect builds, sketching out his plan, thinking it over to the most minute details. Thus the foundations of Samaritan are so fundamentally valid that its presentation is a masterpiece of the form. Price has artfully concealed a haunting treatise on the nuances and ambiguities of human decency, compassion, and generosity in the guise of a superlative thriller. Samaritan is Price's best book to date." Thom Jones, author of The Pugilist at Rest
"One has come to expect from Richard Price, the most brilliant of sardonic ironists, an eye for revelation in the commonplace, even a kind of modern social history. But Samaritan is also a subtle story of seduction and abandonment, of the dangerous luxury of responsibility, and the risks that are inevitable when one is capable of love." Susanna Moore, author of In the Cut
From the author of the bestselling Clockers and Freedomland comes a brilliant new novel of literary suspense a story of crime, punishment, and the impulse to do good. Samaritan explores what happens when, caught up in the drama of one's own generosity, too little is given, too little is understood, and the result turns both tragic and potentially deadly.
About the Author
Richard Price is the author of six previous novels, including the national best-sellers Freedomland and Clockers, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1999 he received an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His fiction, articles and essays have appeared in Best American Essays 2002, the New York Times, the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, Esquire, The Village Voice, and Rolling Stone. He has also written numerous screenplays, including Sea of Love, Ransom, and The Color of Money. He lives in New York City with his wife, the painter Judith Hudson, and his two daughters.
Reading Group Guide
1. The title Samaritan recalls a Biblical parable about a man who is badly beaten
along a roadside and who is rescued by a complete stranger, the "good Samaritan,"
only after being ignored by various passersby. In what ways is Nerese a "good
Samaritan" to Ray? In what ways is Ray a "good Samaritan" to some of the other
characters in the book? What kind of statement is Price making by choosing this
word for the novel's title?
2. The writer Thomas Wolfe famously titled one of his novels You Can't Go
Home Again. In what ways does Ray's story demonstrate the difficulty of
going home? Why is it so important to him to let his daughter see where he grew
up? What has changed in Dempsy since his departure? Why does he have so much
trouble fitting in again?
3. In an interview on NPR's "Fresh Air," Richard Price drew particular attention
to the sections of Samaritan that describe the creative writing class Ray teaches
at Paulus Hook High School. In the novel, he says that stories are Ray's "lifelong
lifeline; to Ruby, to romance, to himself." Think about the stories that Ray
tells Ruby, and the story of her own that she reads aloud toward the end of
the novel. What do Ray's stories say about his personality? What does Ruby's
story reveal about herself? What about the stories that some of the other characters
tell (Salim, Nerese)?
Muse Notes by Kelly
2003 by BookMuse.com. All rights reserved.
“An extraordinary novel, with the gritty plot of a hard-edged thriller and the cosmic concerns of a street-corner Dostoyevsky.” —The Wall Street Journal
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Richard Price’s Samaritan which, like Clockers and Freedomland, is set in the troubled urban community of Dempsy, New Jersey. We hope they will give you a number of useful angles from which to consider this gripping novel.
1. The novel begins as Ray tells his daughter Ruby a story from his boyhood in the Hopewell Houses. What is the significance of such stories for Ray? How good a storyteller is he? What is the effect of framing the plot within the story of Tweetie’s injury and his attempt to help her?
2. Chapter 5 gives an account of the information Bobby Sugar has gathered on Ray, including credit card charges and bank withdrawals, medical history, employment, address changes, etc. What does this chapter tell us about the way police detectives shape their view of a person and his or her possible motivations? How is that process similar to, or different from, the way a novelist creates a character?
3. Compare the book’s epigraph from Matthew 6:1–3 to the scene in which Ray, with Ruby present, gives Carla a check for the full amount of her son’s funeral [p. 109]. Ray’s ex-wife Claire comments, “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” [p. 125]. How serious is this flaw in Ray’s character, and why does Price make Ray’s desire to help the novel’s central theme?
4. What is the effect of the novel’s structure—with chapters moving back and forth in time—on your reading experience? Why might Price have chosen to construct the plot in this way?
5. In one of Nerese’s many moments of insight, she muses about Ray:
“The constant white-black casting made her uncomfortable—no, made her angry; but that anger was tempered by the intuition that this compulsion in him wasn’t really about race; that the element of race, the chronic hard times and neediness of poor blacks and Latinos was primarily a convenience here, the schools and housing projects of Dempsy and other places like a stocked pond in which he could act out his selfish selflessness over and over…and that he was so driven by this need, so swept away by it, that he would heedlessly, helplessly risk his life to see it played out each and every time until he finally drew the ace of spades, or swords, and got the obituary that would vindicate him, bring tears to his eyes; key word, ‘beloved,’ if only he could figure out some way to come back from the dead long enough to read it.” [p. 215]
In Nerese’s view, Ray is driven primarily by narcissism, by an obsessive desire to be needed and to be thanked. Is her observation correct? Does this motive outweigh the good that Ray tries to do?
6. How incisive is Price as an analyst of race relations? In his desire to “give back,” is there any way for Ray to be comfortable about race, to enter his old community as an affluent white man offering help? Does Ray recognize that in giving Carla the money for the funeral he humiliates her, winning her resentment rather than her gratitude [pp. 109–110]?
7. Is Nerese the moral and emotional anchor of the novel? Why or why not? Given that she and Ray have come from the same place, how have they handled their lives differently? What are the differences in psychology of these two characters? What motivates them?
8. Discuss the relationship between Ruby and Nelson, two children of nearly the same age who are thrown together by Ray and Danielle’s sexual liaison. Why does Ruby refuse to apologize to Nelson when she hits him with the softball? What is the meaning of the story Ruby shares with Ray’s writing class [pp. 353–54]? Why does Price make children such a crucial part of the story?
9. Is Ray exploiting Danielle, or is she exploiting him in their sexual relationship? What motivates Danielle to involve herself and her son with Ray? She sees herself as an independent and self-motivated woman; Ray sees her as a woman who has chosen to stay in a marriage with a drug dealer [pp. 198–201]. Who is right?
10. Samaritan is a drama of redemption, or self-redemption. Why is shame referred to as one of Ray’s defining characteristics? Does he have good reason to feel ashamed of himself? Why does Ray need to redeem himself? How successful is he in his efforts to do so?
11. Who is the most likely suspect for the crime against Ray—Salim, Freddy Martinez, Danielle? To what degree is suspense—the “whodunit” quality—important in a novel like this?
12. How does the character of Salim come across? Why does Samaritan end with Salim, and a chapter called “Thank You” [pp. 370–77]?
13. Discuss Chapter 32, in which Nerese and Ray tell each other about their future plans. What do we learn about Nerese’s past and the way it shaped her life? What is she trying to tell Ray about adults’ responsibility to children? Does it seem that Nerese will be happier once she retires from the police department?
14. In a blurb for the hardcover Elmore Leonard stated, “I read Richard Price for the cool, spare sound of his writing, his words, the language he has in his bag that fits so exactly in his settings. The characters talk the talk.” Do you agree with his assessment? Find a few passages that exemplify Price’s strengths as a stylist and discuss their qualities with your group.
15. With Samaritan, Richard Price again reveals himself to be committed to writing novels that awaken his readers to raw and painful social problems. Charles Taylor commented:
“It seems to me that in reporting on some of society’s bedrock institutions (in this case, prisons and the police) and on communities that many of us are either cut off from or see solely in terms of social problems (thus robbing the inhabitants of their individuality) Price is doing work that we should expect from our major novelists. . . . Though Samaritan is his bleakest book, you put it down convinced he is trying to find, in the midst of racial and economic divisions, the things that we share. He’s the reporter-novelist as despairing humanist.” [Salon.com]
How powerful is Samaritan’s social vision? Does it have a message or a lesson for its readers? What questions and issues does the novel leave unresolved?
is your third novel (following Clockers
) to bring to life the streets and housing projects of Dempsey, NJ. What made you want to return to this fictional landscape and how do you see this book in relation to those two?
A: I created the city of Dempsey, which has been the setting for all three books, because I didnt want anyone to associate the location with a specific city and think, Oh this is about Camden, New Jersey or This is about Gary, Indiana. I want people to think of Dempsey as the nearest mid sized city. Its about urban America. The fictional setting also allows me to invent whatever small realities, political quirks or other customized universalities I want without fear of misrepresentation. Socially tainted fiction like mine should be called Accurate Lying.
I see these books as connected in that each is an exploration of a facet of race relations in urban America. Clockers is about economic survival on the street and the relationship between cops and citizens in a world where people see the police as an occupying army. Freedomland is about racial paranoia, using the kidnapping hoax at the center of the story to write about white Americas readiness to buy the worst assumptions about the black people that live nearby but are not really neighbors (and also how the media is so willing to jump on that particular bandwagon). Samaritan is a much more intimate take. Its about the Haves reaching out without really understanding what the Have Nots are all about, and the trickiness of trying to connect in a real and meaningful way across the lines of race and class.
Q: Near the beginning of Samaritan, Ray has been beaten and left for dead and it is up to a cop (and the reader) to figure out whodunit. Is Samaritan a mystery? A novel of suspense? Or something else?
A: Like many writers before me, I find that the basic structure of a police investigation offers a natural framework for writing about almost any aspect of human nature with the built-in bonuses of criminally bad behavior and a strip-tease of gradually revealed identities. But this is not a mystery, or a detective novel. Of course I want people to fall into the book, to be eager to know what happens next, but Samaritan, like Clockers and Freedomland, is more of a whydunit than a whodunit. The social fabric, the background tapestry of everyday life is important, if not more so than the actual misdeed that propels the story.
Q: Nerese is convinced that Rays humanitarianism comes from a need to feel good about himself. As she says, You need too much to be liked...Thats a bad weakness to have. It makes you reckless. And it makes you dangerous. Is she right? Can the impulse to do good ever be free of a certain narcissism?
A: In terms of doing good deeds or extending yourself to others, I would imagine for most people there is something coming back to them in terms of well, this is one way to get to heaven. No interaction of this nature is ever completely selfless and certainly there are times when narcissism can poison altruism. Sometimes its very hard to find the line between delivering to people what you promised and leaving them feeling seduced and abandoned.
Q: In Ray, you have created a multi-layered character; the reader often feels both the urge to slap some sense into him and to applaud his noble efforts. How would you prefer for people to react to him by books end?
A: Basically, the guys an unregenerate human being, which is to say, like everyone else his ass is three and a half feet from his head. Hes a weak, needy but good-hearted person with too much power in too small a world. He has a hard time seeing the selfishness drizzled through his acts of selflessness but he means well, so...
Q: Are there any similarities between you and the character Ray?
A: Although this is a work of fiction it is obviously informed by a lot of my life experiences. In the course of doing the work for Freedomland and Clockers I found myself, in exchange for information or access into people lives, offering up anything from money to jobs to simple human company to whatever would make it seem a fair exchange. And I also found myself doing a lot of pro-bono teaching.
Ive given Ray many of the external elements of my life. We both grew up in public housing projects, had a history with drugs, and basically made our way out in the course of our lives through writing. We both grew up in a racially mixed environment in the 1950s and 1960s, at least in New York City, housing projects were as close to melting pots as America would ever see.
And to this day I find myself, for a million different reasons, going back to the projects where I was raised and will occasionally, like Ray, drag one of my daughters along with me.
Q: This novel deals with what one character calls the enormity of small things; how the smallest gesture of kindness can have immeasurable effects. Have you had such an experience in your own life?
A: Obviously, were all a product of our upbringing, schooled in how to be, who to be by the people that raised us. Yet, if the timing is right someone coming along and reaching out in a way that goes completely against the grain of that instruction, can be an earthshaking experience. As for myself, there were certain people, teachers for the most part, who have occasionally but lastingly turned my world upside down, although I imagine most of them werent aware of the impact they were having on me.
Q: Storytelling features prominently in Samaritan in Rays relationships with Ruby and his students; in his role as father, teacher, and television writer. What is the power of storytelling in daily life, especially for kids?
A: Sometimes it is easier for people to express their feelings towards others by sharing small stories that have always been close to their heart, these narratives a kind of long hand for I love you. Everyone, no matter what age, no matter how limited their experience or education, can tell a dozen great stories and usually they center around the mythology of their family. What makes them great is not that they are true or false or even well told, but that these anecdotes have been living inside them all their lives and when offered up theyre like giving a piece of your soul.
Q: The World Trade Center appears on the sidelines in this novel, its absence an integral part of the city as Ray gazes across the Hudson from his terrace. Did you feel it was important to somehow incorporate the events of 9/11 in the novel?
A: Writing a book about the New York area after 9/11 and ignoring what happened is like writing a book about Hawaii in late December, 1941 and ignoring Pearl Harbor. The question becomes: How do you integrate it without exploiting it? And how do you integrate it without losing sight of what you were writing about before September 11th?
Q: The family units that appear in your novel are non-traditional: single-parent, inter-racial, and joint-custody. Would you say that this contributes to the problems many of the characters experience?
A: Im so used to non-traditional family units that I wasnt even aware I was creating them. Sometimes I feel like a two parent house is as exotic as any other type of arrangement.
Q: Ray is a white guy who in Samaritan operates in a mostly black world. You are a white guy who covers racial territory and captures experiences many would shy away from. What has made you want to explore this terrain?
A: The whole notion of being white and creating black characters is a non-issue to me. A writers job is to imagine lives not his or her own so no race no gender no sexual preference, no religion should be out of bounds. The only mandate is that whoever you create on paper should be a multi-dimensional, full-blooded human being.
I choose to write novels with strong racial elements because race is the heart and soul of American history, race relations the great American obsession, and racism the American flu.
Q: What kind of preparation or research went into this novel?
A: Compared to the last few books there was no real research. Experientially Id done everything that the character had done. I grew up in public housing, made my mark in Hollywood, taught in urban public schools. I've also spent alot of time with cops and around housing projects for the better part of the last fifteen years, because I believe in what Jimmy Breslin once said regarding Damon Runyon, He did what all good reporters do. He hung out.