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Reviewer: 'Freedomland' is masterful

by Richard Price

Bantam Doubleday Dell, $25

Review by Wendy Brandes

Web posted on: Thursday, August 06, 1998 12:39:24 PM EDT

(CNN) -- Inspired by a true story. The phrase usually reads more like a warning than an acknowledgment. Translation: Schlocky telepic about Long Island Lolita or Texas cheerleader mom coming your way.
Read a multimedia interview with "Freedomland" author Richard Price
What did you think of 'Freedomland'?

But "Freedomland" is a knockout, and not just because of the diminished expectations for the genre. Author Richard Price has a genius for portraying internal conflicts; his imaginary cops, journalists, do-gooders and ne'er-do-wells seem more alive than actual human beings do after the mass media get hold of them.

"Freedomland" takes place in fictional Dempsy, N.J., the setting of Price's previous novel, "Clockers". This time, though he doesn't explicitly refer to it, his tale is haunted by a real-life ghost -- Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman convicted in 1995 of murdering her two sons.

The reader's memories of Smith shadow Brenda Martin as she staggers, bleeding, into Dempsy's emergency room, her palms encrusted with glass and metal. As Smith did initially, Brenda spins a tale of a carjacking, the vehicle snatched with her four-year-old boy asleep in the back seat. Like Smith, Brenda is white and her attacker -- supposedly -- is a black man.

This political hot potato lands square in the lap of Lorenzo "Big Daddy" Council, a black police detective who grew up in the housing project adjacent to Martyrs Park, identified as the scene of the crime. The Henry Armstrong Houses -- nicknamed Strongarm -- sit on the border of Dempsy and its mostly white, blue-collar neighbor, Gannon, where Brenda lives. As word of the carjacking spreads, Gannon cops arrive in force, trailing reporters and camera crews in their wake and locking down Armstrong as if all its tenants are suspects. Lorenzo fumes privately, knowing Gannon cops are getting it all wrong: "...jokers coming in here doing the rockabilly shuffle like this, playing hard ball when there was no reason to, turning all his carefully cultivated goodwill to trash..."

But there's no quick fix for old double standards. The hard truth in "Freedomland" is that one white child's disappearance matters more than all the black-on-black crime that regularly plagues Armstrong. "No one would ever say that, admit to that, anymore than they'd admit to calling this part of the city Darktown, " Price writes, "but the pressure was like a sand storm, both overwhelming and subtle, the driven grains everywhere, sweeping people off their feet and inhabiting the finest cracks and crevices."

Still, the woman at the eye of the storm isn't unsympathetic. Brenda is the daughter and sister of Gannon cops, but she works at an after-school program for kids in the projects. She fought drug addiction and raised her son by herself. Maybe her carjacking story doesn't add up, but her agony over the boy, Cody, is undeniable. In one character's words, it's "like listening to a broken heart direct." In Brenda's own words, she's "nothing," an "obscenity," a "bad mother" and Cody is her "life," her "little man." She physically punishes herself by hacking off her hair and reopening her wounds. Alternatively, she tries to tune out the entire world, clamping on headphones and drowning in soul music.

Probing the depths of Brenda's self-loathing with Council is Jesse Haus, a local newspaper reporter long ago jaded by crimes du jour. For Jesse, journalism is usually a kind of relay race, in which the bare facts and a bit of color are handed off to an editor so she can dash to the next story. But once Jesse talks herself into Brenda's apartment, she can't tear herself away. She wants to get the hot story, but she also finds herself losing her cool detachment: "Brenda's anguish, mortification, and insanity filling Jesse, like water taking the shape of its vessel." When her editor needles her, asking "Are you in love?", she can't really say no.

Price hits a few false notes. Among them are Jesse's impossible deadline (6 p.m. -- fine for a morning newspaper, but not for an evening daily) and her brother Ben, an odd-job man who all too magically appears whenever she needs rescuing. But the rest of the supporting players ring true, including the members of a missing children's search group, initially seen through Jesse's eyes as zealous housewives with too much time on their hands. She realizes her error gradually, as she observes the group expertly draw the truth from Brenda. Another savvy operator is Armstrong's Reverend Longway, the protest-organizer whose impassioned speeches belie a weary realism. "Hey," Longway tells Lorenzo, "You get what you can get ... citizen review board, more black cops, more jobs, a goddamn basketball tournament."

It doesn't give much away to say there is no carjacker. Early in the book, Brenda meets with a police sketch artist. He shows the resulting picture -- a self-portrait -- to Lorenzo, remarking, "This is the eighth felony I pulled this month, you know what I'm saying." Price pulls off a surprise ending anyway by leaving Susan Smith's story behind and concocting a fresh resolution, the suspense and racial tension mounting as Brenda unravels.

Vivid imagery further separates "Freedomland" from other crime yarns. Where else do trees bear "pairs of sneakers thrown up there bolo-style and left to dangle like rubberized fruit"? And when Brenda tells Lorenzo that Cody is still in the stolen car, the words come out "in a tremulous hoot....she finally stared at him straight on, no more peekaboo, her eyes terror-blasted, as if she expected him to rise to his full height and beat her to death."

Price's dialogue captures the ease and the edge of natural conversation, urban style. In a hospital ER, a drunk tries to coax some pain killers out of an elderly nurse: "I got to get some Percocets or something 'cause I cannot stand pain and I got to get to work at 6 a.m. in the morning."

"I hope you don't drive no school bus," the nurse retorts, adding for good measure, "You want to know about pain, you have yourself a baby, then come talk to me about pain."

Back on the streets, Lorenzo is grappling with a question thrown at him by Armstrong kids and community leaders alike: "Black or blue?" He's ambivalent about the answer, same as he is towards Brenda, who touches him deeply, even though he suspects her of lying from the get-go -- and even as he struggles with anguished patience to guide her toward a possible confession. As he tells Jesse, "And like, that story she threw us? That was like, unconscionable, and I cannot tell you why she said it except it was like a white-mind reflex, but I am telling you -- she started paying for it right from the door."

Like Lorenzo, Richard Price does a bang-up job of solving the case while conceding there are no simple remedies for the conditions that bred it. The problems of race, America's permanent torment, bring out the worst and sometimes the best in its people. In "Freedomland", Price is masterful at showing us both sides.

Wendy Brandes supervises financial markets coverage for CNNfn. She lives in New York City.

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