The Whites (2015), By Richard Price (Writing as Harry Brandt)


Does this storyline seem hackneyed to you?

Once upon a time there was an especially intense and close group of New York City police, known as the Wild Geese, and with a special status as a crime-busting unit. Years later, each Wild Goose carries an obsessive regret–a personal failure to bring to justice an especially horrific criminal who had been one of his or her cases. As the officers grow older and more jaded, and leave police work to earn a living some other way (the lone stay-behind being the hero of the story), they become latter day Captain Ahabs: for each, the notable criminal he or she failed to bring t0 justice becomes a personal “white,” their Moby-Dick. As the Whites now begin to come to bad ends, the hero (Billy Graves), the one who remains in police work, begins to suspect that his retired fellow Wild Geese are taking justice into their own hands and begins to investigate. In fact, the hero himself has that same vigilante urge, but seems resistant to it, if precariously. In the meantime, a terrifying psychopath who believes the hero’s wife caused the death years before of members of his family begins to stalk the hero, the hero’s wife and their two young sons in a deliberately gradual way meant to parcel out and intensify the terror, for example, posing as a driver to give rides to the hero’s father, no longer able safely to operate a car; talking to one of the sons at the school bus stop; and leaving menacing, bloody signs on the front porch of the hero’s house.

Assume that the milieux is a determinedly “gritty” New York City. Thoroughly American urban. A latter day walk on the down-and-out side. Which is to say: typically the settings are dirty, ill-lighted (too bright or too shadowy), old, decrepit, noisy, blasted, just this side of, say, one of the noted rural alarmist Margaret Atwood’s evil post-Apocalyptic American dystopias.

Assume that sometimes it seems as though every police role in the story is played by Harvey Keitel or Dennis Farina. Also imagine Wall Street doesn’t exist and there are no rich people save one retired Wild Goose who has made twenty or thirty million flipping old project buildings in New York’s pricey real estate world.

As to the writing, from time to time we tag along with the stalker, and we know more about him than anyone else in the story. The talking styles you hear–the “voices”–are almost entirely those of New York police, con artist perps, angry spouses, and street people. Two examples–the arrest by Billy Graves and another cop of two suspects; and an argument between Graves and his wife, Carmen:

“Anybody looking to go out of the picture?” he asked Stupak.

“Doubt it. They were both howling pretty good before you got here.”

“Anything on the shooter?”

“You’re looking at them,” Mayo said.





“The hell with this and the hell with that,” Carmen clutching her head. “I’m supposed to take the kids and live where, upstate New York, on top of some dead bodies in Harlem?”

“Harlem’s totally different now.”

“I don’t give a s— if it’s the new Paris. I’m just not taking my kids to live in a funeral home. Where’s your head at, Billy?”

In the end, it all sort of works out. The worst offenders get it good. The ones you want to cut some slack for aren’t called to account. The stalker almost kills everyone.

The New York media love The Whites. Is there such a thing as a “New York novel”? Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City comprise San Francisco novels. William Kennedy’s Ironweed is an Albany novel.

Just by way of contrast, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is more than a Los Angeles novel.

I think The Whites is clearly a New York novel.

If you like gritty, it’s one for you even if you’re not living there. Otherwise, despite the critical huzzahs, I’d skip it.

I’m not sure why Richard Price, “writing as Harry Brandt,” goes ahead and confesses to that on the cover. I guess probably it’s not important.

Just one nitpik. Poor Ahab has too often been thought of as some sort of vengeful nut, a crazy who wants revenge on a dumb brute. There’s a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon in which Moby-Dick, in his car, gets into a fender-bender in a gritty city of stalled traffic with… Ahab! The White Whale thinks, “Of all the people I might have encountered, wouldn’t you know it would be him!” In The Whites, when one of the Whites sees his Ahab, he thinks much the same way as Larson’s Moby-Dick. But Ahab isn’t after merely one White per se.  He is instead giving a new, modern “answer” to the Theodicy question: If there is a just God, how can that God allow the pain and suffering of human experience? In short, the Human Condition. And Moby-Dick is all the whites–the manifestation of the malevolent presence behind the mask of reality who has it in for us in an impersonal modern cosmos in which theology would seem obsolete. Ahab detests the old answers to the Theodicy question from the East and the West: that we are evil and deserve to suffer; that our minds are too small to understand the Larger, Painful Plan (as in the Biblical story of Job and the Burning Bush); that we must transcend ordinary and hurtful experience through monastic ways, “rise above” the pain and grief; and so on. Unlike Milton, Ahab is out to justify the ways of man to God. Entrepreneurial Ahab, using the technology of his time, embraces Defiant Revenge as the only satisfactory response to the Human Condition. It’s at once deadly and enervating. It’s a Modern saga.

But then,  Moby-Dick isn’t a New York novel.

Maybe Price shouldn’t have drawn the comparison.