HBO’s The Night Of and the Novels of Richard Price
Novelist and screenwriter Richard Price gives his words life by living them, and HBO's The Night Of is better for it.
The Night Of, the eight-part crime procedural miniseries, is coming to HBO and BBC Worldwide this weekend. The series is based on the British television series Criminal Justice, which ran from 2008 through 2009. I’ve seen the first few episodes of The Night Of and can proclaim enthusiastically that this is quality television, kind of like True Detective, season 1 without the demons. It would be a quality film if it went in that direction, the culprit for that is Steven Zaillian, who directed seven of the episodes.
Like HBO’s True Detective, the series benefits from the teaming of one director and one writer. Zaillian co-wrote the series with Richard Price, best known to HBO devotees for his work on season five of The Wire.
Zaillian probably could have written and directed The Night Of all by his lonesome. He wrote the screenplay for Schindler’s List (1993), a pretty good movie, to say the least. Zaillian co-wrote Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) with Jay Cocks and Kenneth Lonergan. He directed the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, All the King’s Men (2006), and the trial drama A Civil Action, which featured James Gandolfini.
The Night Of, which stars Riz Ahmed as Naz, a young Pakistani-American student accused of a horrific murder, and John Turturro as his ambulance chasing self-appointed mouthpiece John Stone, was a passion project of Gandolfini, who shot one scene in the original 2012 pilot as Stone. It was the last piece of acting the former The Sopranos star ever shot. Gandolfini’s death stopped production.
The series is a cop procedural, told with amazing accuracy. As serious as this mystery is, the gallows’ humor that runs through it adds a subliminal sting to the suspense. That realistic dialog is made all the more human by the co-writer of every episode’s script, the legendary, in this writer’s mind, Richard Price.
Like many people, I first discovered Richard Price from the movie The Wanderers, the 1979 fifties era coming-of-age in a gang movie shot in the Bronx by Philip Kaufman. I must have watched The Wanderers half a dozen times before my girlfriend told me that the book was even better than the movie. I bought a used copy on Sixth Avenue in the Village for a quarter. The book was better than the movie. And I loved that movie. The Ducky Boys were even more mysterious, shrouded in religious mystery, back alley phantoms lit by street light votive candles. One of the characters had a huge cock that, when erect, pointed straight down instead of standing up. There was depth, humor and inner drama to each of the characters and the best character was the street.
Richard Price was 24 when he published The Wanderers in 1974 while he was taking writing classes at Columbia University. According to interviews Price gave, his classmates hated it. “A deeply moving account of confused and spiritually underprivileged youth. Not since Last Exit to Brooklyn has dialogue been so accurately reproduced in artistic format,” raved William S. Burroughs when The Wanderers came out.
I get this completely. I even found Last Exit to Brooklyn at Strand for about a buck, used of course. Burroughs, the writer of Naked Lunch, was a life-long, unapologetic heroin junkie, and he was a connoisseur of habits. I binge on quite a few authors, Kurt Vonnegut, Anthony Burgess, Leon Uris, and let’s face it, keeping up with Stephen King is an almost full-time binge read, fucking guy writes books in the time it takes most people read them. And we do. We really do.
But Price is the only one who can make it feel like he’s talking to me, over coffee or drinks or something, in between bands or standup comics in a club. His introduction is a kind of universal shared experience.
Price also looked to read things that matched his experience. “Books like Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, where I recognized people who were somewhat meaner and more desperate than the people I grew up with, but who were much closer to my own experience than anything I’d ever read before. I mean, I didn’t have a red pony,” he told the Paris Review in 1996.
The film The Wanderers was shot on the same Little Italy streets as the book, the neighborhood where Price grew up. I moved to that area when I was eighteen and recognized the Alexander’s store on the way to the D-Train, a major character in the gang film The Warriors. I walked past the corner the Baldies hung out almost daily. I used to live above Ann and Tony’s restaurant on Hoffman.
The Bronx’s Little Italy is the only place you can get a meat calzone. It is the birth place of Bobby Darin and Dion Di Mucci, whose band was named after Belmont Ave., where they served the best of those calzones. I could taste them on every page of Price’s book and it built up an appetite. I found used copies of Ladies Man, Blood Brothers, and The Breaks and went on a jag.
Like The Warriors, I recognized something on every page, but it wasn’t just the decor. The kid who riffs on B-sides, who makes big breaks from one passage of life to the next, like sticking the nozzle of a hair cream under an apartment door and stomping on the bottle as a way of quitting a job. I caught the same fascination with the areas of anything that was a little off-limit or slightly seedy or shady. I knew how boredom could make you think about calling in a bomb threat. Everyone did, these things went through everybody’s head, didn’t they?
Then Price really messed me up by getting a little too specific. I grew up in construction shanties. I used to work construction on sites that my father was either foreman or super on, but I didn’t see myself doing that after college, mistake that that was. The lead character of Blood Brothers worked on construction sites as an electrician’s apprentice to his old man. Tommy’s kid in the book even had the same nickname as me in high school, Stony.
“Stony felt like he’d just done something bad,” Blood Brothers reads, “that he was going to get his ass kicked by somebody, that he just broke his mother’s favorite lamp, but somewhere in the back of his head there was a nagging, irritating, terrifying, undeniable sense of excitement the likes of which he hadn’t felt since the first time he got laid.” And that was when he got his first non-construction job. Shit. Who couldn’t relate to that?
The blood brothers in Blood Brothers were Tommy and Chubby, who never caught a whiff of pussy they didn’t want to uncork. Two good-looking, Italian jibones, married, one with two kids, the other blood brothers Stony and Albert, working for Artie the contractor. The brothers fled the Bronx for Co-op City but will still go to a Puerto Rican dive bar on 135th Street or whatever, with a kitchen knife and a hard on. Price captured the neighborhood, the generational divide, and the entire early seventies.
Christ, just flip through the pages and read anything at random and there is a paragraph where Price gives you a sense of exactly what it is and how it went down. “The South Bronx,” Price writes. “Fort Apache. The pits. Chubby wandered the humid streets like the last survivor of World War Three. Human shadows shifted along brick walls like rats. Building entrances like one way tickets. Latin Music sifted through the air high above his head. A man in a flowered beige shirt and denim beach hat passed him on the street.”
Reading his books were enough to make you miss your stop. I still go on Richard Price jags. Every time one of his books comes out, I go back and read at least two of his earlier books when I’m finished because once I get a taste, it is hard to stop. Like Lay’s potato chips or heroin, reading Price’s books is like sniffing glue when you’re eight. It fucks up your head.
After about four books, I wanted to find out how Price’d so accurately stolen my life and how he’d written it before I’d lived it. His books were all written before I’d lived them, I just discovered them after. I know I wasn’t the only person who identified so keenly with his books. No matter how personal he got, he had a way of being universal. It’s a good thing Price started writing cop dramas that went outside of my own experience. He cut me loose.
The first cop drama was Sea of Love, which starred Al Pacino and John Goodman. It’s become a kind of cop movie cult classic and it was certainly different than most cop movies at the time. It was a little more reflective and a little more pervy. It was a little more ugly in the way it showed the cop getting swallowed up by his own coppishness filtered through the haze of New York City’s sexual underground. The book reeked of more amyl nitrate than Pacino huffed in Cruisin’.
Sea of Love was loosely, but emotionally, based on Price’s third novel Ladies’ Man, which told the story of wiseass door-to-door salesman Kenny Becker, who floats “from one bad, heavy relationship to another, like a trapeze artist swinging from one suspended bar to the next with no net below.” Kenny cuts loose from his girlfriend La Donna by telling her his truth about her singing and goes on a sex club and stroke booth sojourn. The book’s most supportive character was the only thing of all the artichoke layers of bullshit that made Becker’s life that never switched up on him, his dick.
Besides screenplays and novels, Price published articles in The New York Times, Esquire Magazine, The New Yorker, Village Voice, and Rolling Stone. Ladies’ Man started as a series of articles Price was writing for Penthouse “about public places in which you can go and either participate in or observe actual sex: massage parlors, back-room gay bars, Plato’s Retreat–type places, even singles bars, back rooms of bars like The Anvil, The Toilet, The Ramp, The Strap, The Stirrup, The Eagle’s Nest, and God knows what,” Price told the Paris Review. After Kenny made his break from his girlfriend’s vocal fantasia, he trolls the singles bars where “around me guys swamped girls like pigeons after croutons, blurting out lines so transparent and tacky that even I was offended. No wonder nobody ever got laid.”
Washboard-bellied Kenny descends into ultimate self-flagellation of self-love in his attempt to steer clear of the ballbusters in his life, but the balls he ultimately breaks are his own.
The next book I devoured by Price was The Breaks, about wise ass Peter “Speedo” Keller, who was the first in his family to graduate from college. Sadly, he majored in English and spent his first post-school years in shitty, go nowhere jobs, because they’re always hiring at the post office, like telephone sales. He kills time by helping save lives on an early version of late night home shopping TV and phoning in fake bomb threats before he hooks up with his teacher and learns what a failed writer’s life is really all about. It would be seven years before Price would write another novel. The Breaks was the last time he plundered his autobiography for stories.
Richard Price was born in 1949. His father was a window dresser for Modell’s sports shops. His grandfather was a factory worker who was born in Russia but also worked as a stagehand in Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side of New York and wrote poetry. A mild case of cerebral palsy slightly deformed Price’s right hand, so he says he never goes anywhere without his left. He bonded with an aunt over B-movie horror flicks like The Attack of the Praying Mantis, The Crawling Eye, and The Creature From Green Hell and Zacherly’s Shock Theater.
Price was the first kid in his family to go to college. He went to Cornell University, from 1967 to 1971 before joining Columbia University’s fiction MFA program. The short story that would become The Wanderers was published by his classmate, the poet Daniel Halpern, in his journal. Price would make a cameo appearance as the bowling ringer who tries to handicap the match in the movie The Wanderers. Just before he drops the ball on the less-than-slick out-of-the-neighborhood cheats, Chubby Galasso tells them he got the idea from his favorite movie. After the first four books, Price took his cue to move into screenplays.
The Color of Scorsese
Price banked his first script off the velvet of the ultimate New York City director Martin Scorsese. The Color of Money, the 1986 sequel to Robert Rossen’s 1961 film The Hustler, was a good movie in spite of the shit-eating grin attitude that Tom Cruise consistently tries to pass off as acting. Paul Newman reprised his role as pool hustler Fast Eddie. Price’s screenplay for Color of Money got nominated for an Oscar.
Price continued to write for Scorsese with Life Lessons, the best of three half-hour segments included in the film New York Stories. It starred Nick Nolte and Rosanna Arquette and featured a pristine master of Procol Harum’s live version of “Conquistador.” Price gave Scorsese’s camera the freedom to be obsessive. Price also came up with the concept and wrote the 18-minute video Scorsese directed for Michael Jackson’s “Bad” in 1989.
Price wrote a screenplay for the 1992 remake of the 1950 noir film Night and the City, starring Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney, for Scorsese to direct, but it wound up being “too Scorsesian for Scorsese to do.” Price also wrote the screenplay for the remake of the 1947 Jules Dassin film noir classic Kiss of Death. The 1995 remake starred Nicolas Cage and David Caruso.
In 1993, Price turned in the script for the gangster comedy-drama Mad Dog and Glory. Directed by John McNaughton, the movie turned expectations on their head by casting Bill Murray as the gangster and Robert De Niro as the standup guy who does right enough by him to get Uma Thurman wrapped up as a thank you gift. Price also wrote the screenplay for the movie Ransom with Mel Gibson, which came out in 1996.
Price wrote Shaft, the fourth and final sequel to the original 1971 classic, with John Singleton and Shane Salerno in 2000. He also doctored up the script for the movie American Gangster.
Price, being part of the Writers’ Union, puts his pen down when he clocks out. But before he picks it up again, he delves deep into character of his next work: The neighborhood. He walks the streets, drinks in the bars, talks to the cops, the criminals, the kids on the street, you can feel it. He knows them. Even when he doesn’t know them, he does. Even when he has to make them up as he goes along.
For his return to novels, Price immersed himself in the world of low level crack dealers in the housing projects of Jersey City. Besides capturing the feel of the neighborhood, Clockers captured the players and the playas. Price gave one of the characters, the teenaged crack sales team leader, an ulcer. The kid self-medicates with the fictional Vanilla Yoo-hoo, a wonderful device Price made up. Clockers takes place in the fictional N.J. city of Dempsy where the men in blue, like the detective Rocco, were white and the dealers Strike and Rodney, their customers and all the collateral damage in between, were black.
Clockers, which came out in 1992, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Spike Lee made it into a film in 1995. Because Lee was in the nasty habit of writing his own script, he shared screenplay credits with Price, rather than use the script he’d already written. The movie starred Harvey Keitel, Delroy Lindo, and The Night Of‘s John Turturro.
Clockers was the first novel in Price’s Dempsy trilogy. This included the novels Freedomland, about Brenda Martin’s carjacking that turns into a kidnapping because her son was asleep in the back seat, and Samaritan, his 2003 novel about TV writer Ray Mitchell, who moves back to Dempsy to help the less fortunate he left behind and gets his ass handed to him in return.
Price returned with a vengeance in 2008. He wrote a few teleplays for the fifth season of HBO’s realistic crime procedural The Wire, which netted Price a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Dramatic Series, and published Lush Life, a book about a neighborhood in transition masquerading as a crime procedural.
Walking down the Lower East side neighborhood, you pass a “falafel joint, jazz joint, gyro joint, corner. Schoolyard, creperie, realtor, corner. Tenement, tenement, Tenement Museum, corner. Pink Pony, Blind Tiger, muffin boutique, corner. Sex shop, tea shop, synagogue, corner. Bollywood, Buddha, botanica, corner. Leather outlet, leather outlet, leather outlet, corner. Bar, school, bar, school. People’s Park, corner. Tyson mural, Celia Cruz mural, Ladi Di mural, corner. Bling shop, barbershop, car service corner” before you get to the bar at 27 Eldridge Street. A series of endless rights after Rivington Street. Lush Life is about a mugging, but it’s also about mugging. The book is very chatty, what with Little Dap’s clipped rejoinders and the resigned appraisals of Lugo’s Quality of Lifers.
Price adapted Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 novel Child 44, into director Daniel Espinosa’s British-American mystery thriller, which came out in April 2015. Child 44 starred Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Paddy Considine, Jason Clarke, and Vincent Cassel. The novel was loosely based on the Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo.
Price published his ninth novel, The Whites, under the pen name Harry Brandt. The book was published on February 17, 2015 and I wouldn’t have known about it if not for this piece. I’m still reading it, but so far, what I can tell you is that it’s not about race. The “whites” in The Whites are those precinct cops who can’t sleep because they’re haunted by cases they can’t solve. They spend their nights going through boxes of case files, transcripts, testimony, and interviews looking for some kind of closure.
The book opens on “the night of St. Patrick’s, worst of the year for NYPD’s Night Watch, the handful of detectives under Billy’s command responsible for covering all of felony-weight Manhattan from Washington Heights to Wall Street between one a.m. and eight a.m., when there were no active squads.” The Whites is reportedly going to be made into a film by producer Scott Rudin.
Richard Price taught writing classes at Columbia, Yale University, and New York University. But any writer who wants to learn how to write in modern literature should just read the books. Over and over again.
The Night Of will premiere on HBO on July 10, 2016.