St. Paul knew what he was talking about when he said, "Charity suffereth long." It's been suffering an identity crisis lately. Two years ago, Nick Hornby examined the personal costs of philanthropy in a comic novel called "How to be Good." Last year, in "A Bed for the Night," David Rieff claimed that international relief organizations create a debilitating culture of dependency among their starving beneficiaries.
And now comes Richard Price's "Samaritan," with an alarming EKG on a bleeding-heart liberal. All these books raise unsettling questions about the limits of charity and the conflicted motives that inspire it. But Price's novel, without the satiric exaggeration of Hornby's comedy or the depressing futility of Rieff's exposé, is most likely to scrape one's tender good will.
Price tells what should be a feel-good story about a divorced dad who returns to his old neighborhood to give something back. A few years of writing for a TV drama have given Ray Mitchell enough cash to retire and volunteer at the grungy school he graduated from 25 years ago. His writing class attracts only a few students, but walking up the down staircase, Ray is thrilled to think he's going to save these needy black kids with the power of his unconditional white love.
Unfortunately for Ray, this inspiring plan is interrupted after a month, when he's found nearly beaten to death in his apartment. Perhaps these are more dangerous minds than he realizes.
Detective Nerese Ammons must hang on for only a few months before she can retire after 20 years of service and begin a new, much less stressful career. As a black woman in a mostly male, mostly white department, she's had enough struggles on and off her beat. But hearing of Ray's assault sparks a memory of the time he helped her when they were both children, living in the same housing project.
Nerese decides to take the case and pay him back for that good deed, but as he recovers from surgery, Ray refuses to name his assailant. That strange stance only solidifies her interest, and the two of them begin a month-long standoff during which she investigates and he begs her to stop.
Price has structured this relentlessly engaging novel in alternating chapters that take us through the weeks before Ray's assault and the steps of Nerese's investigation afterwards. Every time she uncovers a clue, flashbacks allow us to see that it's really just another dead end, a misleading coincidence that brings us no closer to knowing who tried to kill this selfless teacher.
But gradually, the nature of Ray's mind becomes even more mysterious than the condition of his head. As Nerese interviews his friends and family, she discovers that donating his time to a bunch of mostly unresponsive high schoolers wasn't Ray's only act of charity. In fact, a string of canceled checks indicates that he's strikingly generous. After two decades of exposing the seedier side of human nature and sensing the whiff of shame that hovers around Ray, Nerese assumes that he's fallen back into a drug habit or an affair that's turned to blackmail.
But Price wants to investigate something more universal and complex. Ray may have kicked cocaine, but he's still a slave to those egocentric highs, and the cheapest way to experience that sensation is by snorting a line of someone else's gratitude. Nerese uncovers (and the novel describes) some sordid events in Ray's past, but nothing is quite as uncomfortable as watching him in the grip of the "slightly suspect craving to give," desperate for that "little rush of largesse" that comes when he's "almost incandescent with goodwill." Price complicates the situation considerably by showing that Ray is, in fact, helping other people; but the oily fingerprints of his neediness stain everything he gives away.
The scenes of him teaching are particularly unsettling because they show a man who fulfills the popular vision of a great teacher so well. Ray is the beloved iconoclast that every school harbors, the cool, young teacher who swears in class, bucks the administration, and grows intoxicated by "really connecting with his kids." But it's always about Ray - his performance, his thirst for their devotion and "the semi-euphoric flush of altruism." Trapped between parents trying to discipline them and teachers trying to teach them, of course these needy young people are drawn to Ray. But his magnetism disrupts the natural field of their affections more than they can understand or he is willing to admit.
"Narcissistic, self-aggrandizing - yeah, yes, guilty as charged," Ray admits to himself, "but, in his defense, he knew that he would have done anything for them: paid their college tuition, paid their family's rent, hooked up their older sibs with jobs; responded to any financial or spiritual 911 they could have possibly sent his way." That he never understands the costs to them of enduring these splashes of generosity shows the depth of his naiveté.
With Nerese, the tough cop who's more interested in helping than being liked, Price delivers a provocative critique of the white man's burden. That attitude is alive and well in liberal America, but still, this is a rude point to make. The poor, after all, can use a little charity regardless of the giver's motives (just in case Mr. Bush's plan to cut taxes on million-dollar estates doesn't make the ghettoes bloom.) But 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." If this is a novel that raps the knuckles of a helping hand, it's nonetheless one to grab on to.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.