Balancing incisive societal commentary with an engrossing story and interesting characters is a difficult feat, but Richard Price does it so seamlessly and skillfully in Samaritan. This is that rare “important” novel that doesn’t seem tired or preachy. In fact, its points and lessons feel less like an author’s agenda and more like organic parts of the story. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous book.
Samaritan centers on the brutal assault of Ray Mitchell, a former television writer who has been doing pro-bono teaching at his old high school. Ray is an ex-junkie who has mysteriously moved from L.A. to an area close to his old New Jersey neighborhood. While there, he attempts to work with his mixed bag of workshop students, tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, meets up with a former student and has an affair with a married woman, the daughter of a former classmate.
After the unsolved, unexplained attack on Ray, the principal of the high school asks a soon-to-retire police detective to look into the beating as a favor. The retiring cop on a crucial last case is a cliché as old as the hills, but Price puts an interesting spin on the case by making the detective a woman, Nerese Ammons, Ray’s childhood friend.
Nerese tries to squeeze the story out of the recovering Ray. He resists; she digs further and finds that Ray had an odd habit of giving away large amounts of money and time to people – many of whom he barely knew.
As the story shifts between the weeks leading up to the beating and the present, it becomes clear that Ray performed these good deeds ostensibly to help others, but obviously seeking gratitude and appreciation – this is a man whose drug abuse ruined his marriage and seriously damaged his relationship with his daughter, and who has has become addicting to being “a good guy.” However, Ray is too immature to fully grasp the responsibilities of his actions. He doesn’t realize that reaching out to someone isn’t a one-time deal.
Price raises an interesting, compelling point in the story – do we help others for their sake, or to boost our own egos? Others have tackled the point, but rarely with the honesty, bravery and wit that Price displays. Yet this is a novel, not a sermon, and its message is imbedded in a brilliant, often addictive narrative. Price also has created two indelible characters in the well-intentioned but misguided Ray and the tough yet thoughtful Nerese, a woman whose own life is easily as complicated as Ray’s. There’s also a dazzling array of supportive characters, many drawn fully in just a few quick scenes – Carla, Ray’s old classmate; Danielle, Carla’s daughter and Ray’s lover; Danielle’s troubled son Nelson; Ray’s daughter Ruby; Nerese’s nephew, who commits murder because of his troubled home life; the neighborhood snitch White Tom; and countless other characters who turn up in Ray’s stories of his life in the old neighborhood.
Samaritan is rich and moving – an amazing novel that sticks with the reader long after its conclusion, both because of what Price is trying to say, and how he says it.