Richard Price published his first novel, The Wanderers, in 1974, when he was twenty-four. It’s a propulsive, plotless bullet of a book whose story is its teenage characters’ lives. It has much in common with Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr.’s sordid gale force of a novel about dope fiends, transvestites, and brawlers in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, that had come out ten years earlier.
The Wanderers tracks a gang of Italian working-class teenagers and their families in an obscure corner of the Bronx. But what’s most striking is not the immersion in New York’s lower depths that it shares with Last Exit to Brooklyn, but their stylistic affinities—a jerky twitchy street rhythm, staccato in one sentence, bleating in the next, but with an improbable harmony capable of driving the reader on. Price has called his style a marriage of “bebop lyricism to the stolid urban realism that I loved so much.” His apprenticeship appears to have resembled that of a young saxophonist soaking up the phrasing of older players and then turning it into his own high-speed cackle.
The Wanderers is suffused with the racial and ethnic hatreds that were an open fact of New York life well into the 1970s. There were sections of the outer boroughs where Italians, Irish, Puerto Ricans, Jews, and blacks lived atop one another in a poisoned clutch. As much as they detested one another, the various white groups were united in their paralyzing fear of blacks. In the novel’s opening scene a convocation of rival gang leaders meets in a playground to plan an alliance because “we gotta stop them niggers.” For as long he could remember, one of the main characters muses, “his mother had warned him about coons and razors and knives and going into empty elevators with niggers because niggers would just as soon cut your balls off and pawn them for dope or booze as look at you.” They were even more feared than the “lunatic” Irish with their “terrifying, slightly cross-eyed stare of the one-dimensional, semihuman, urban punk killing machine.”
What Richard Wright called “color hate” was the coin of the realm. In one scene, lit with Price’s broad and bleak sympathies, a high school teacher—a former neighborhood head banger and “nigger chaser” himself—goads his class of “punks” and “hand-picked troublemakers” into a racial riot. In a cathartic explosion, black and Italian students roar and hoot at one another until the slurs turn into a kind of ecstatic chant.
“Greaseball,” flies the insult from the black side of the room. “Jungle Bunny,” shoots back from the Italian side. “Swamp Guinea.” “Han’kerchief Head.” “Mountin’ Wop.” “Boogie.” Dago.” “Spearchukka.” By the end of this Tourette’s-like outburst they have become a unified force, venting with more glee than menace the prejudices they have internalized as deeply…
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