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Growing Pains

The Breaks

by Richard Price
Simon and Schuster, 446 pp., $15.95

Young guy—at loose ends, just out of college (or high school)—bops around aimlessly. Fights with his folks, tries to recapture that campus (or adolescent) glow, has a messy love affair. Makes a self-discovery or two. Eventually pulls himself together. Lots of laughs, lots of sex, lots of Angst.

That, more or less, has been the most obvious—and usually the easiest—agenda for first novelists (young-guy division) over the past twenty years or so. Thanks in part to its memorable film version, Charles Webb’s The Graduate (1963) still stands as a modest, middle-of-the-road prototype; variations since have been known to dress up the basic autobiographical outline with football, wrestling, politics, cults, rock bands, incest, or (the recent favorite) drug running. And if the better examples of the species offer a reliable set of virtues—shrewdly observed backgrounds (ethnics a specialty), fresh-off-the-street dialogue, the high spirits or the unabashed intensity of youth—they also tend to share serious limitations: erratic characterization, sentimentality, and an episodic structure that’s likely to develop problems (e.g., an arbitrary jolt of melodrama) in the denouement department.

Peter Keller, the narrator of Richard Price’s The Breaks, certainly seems—at first glance—to fit the pattern. Hours after graduating from Simon Straight (“the Harvard of upstate New York”), the first in his lower-middle-class Jewish family to go to college, Peter is “back in Square One, the high rise apartment in Yonkers, back in my child-ass bedroom.” Wait-listed at Columbia Law, planning to reapply, he spends the following year in a series of nowhere jobs, doesn’t reapply (though scoring high on his second LSATs), and instead manages to get himself arrested—for phoning in fake bomb threats to whatever nightspots (the Brothers of Zion Lodge, a local movie house) his father and stepmother happen to be visiting. But that’s only the beginning of Peter’s postgrad crisis. After squirming out from the judicial process with an ACOD (“adjournment on contemplation of dismissal”), he flees the hothouse atmosphere in Yonkers, scurries back to his alma mater, lucks into a minor faculty position, hangs out with townies and profs, discovers the narcissistic joys of body building, begins giving serious attention to his “standing daydream” of being a stand-up comic (with an impromptu Village debut)—and, above all, becomes heatedly entangled with Kimberly Fonseca, whose estranged husband Tony is the “Angry Young Man Pied Piper” of the English department.

Like most of those other young-guy-at-loose-ends novels, then, The Breaks lurches along restlessly, episodically. And, like the genre’s livelier specimens, it often might seem to be propelled from sequence to sequence only by its descriptive, verbal/comic talents—which, in Price’s case, are considerable. Peter’s jumpy narrative voice (smartalecky down one street, self-deprecating up the next) makes the most of every passing jerk and bozo, every gallant eccentric or tiny, skewering embarrassment. His first job is at American Communicators—where eighty-five cubicled phone zombies solicit in the name of Public TV or Power Plower (“the complete iso-tensile body-builder in a bar”), with raunchy tele-pranks by the bored employees and steely dismissals by wiretapping supervisor Mrs. Himmel. (“She didn’t say anything, just serenely stared at my forehead, as if she were contemplating what a lovely ashtray the top half of my skull would make.”) Later, on the midnight post office shift on Eighth Avenue, Peter’s “urban dittybop routine” doesn’t quite have the intended, ingratiating effect on his proletarian colleagues: “That’s amazing, man,” says Nelson Maldonado of Peter’s tony college degree. “Because my fucking sister goes to Bronx Community and she speaks better English than you.” There are precise, devastating glimpses of a Fordham Road lawyer, the Official US Navy Rock and Roll Recruiting Band, and the regulars at a Ted Mackian piano bar in the Village.

But The Breaks isn’t Richard Price’s first novel, of course. It’s his fourth. In fact, whether by creative design or psychological necessity, Price seems to have delayed tackling his most keenly autobiographical material—circling around it through a trio of seething, often impressive and exuberant subcultural studies. The Wanderers (1974) was as much pop sociology as fiction: a dozen related stories about the “greaseball” teen-agers in a relatively benign Bronx street gang. Bloodbrothers (1976), too, while zeroing in on an eighteen-year-old’s growing pains and exploring family psychopathology, leaned hard on the Italian-American milieu, on Price’s ventriloquistic prowess. (It’s telling, perhaps, even a kind of authorial in-joke, that Tony Fonseca, Peter’s alter ego in The Breaks as well as his rival, is eventually revealed to be Jewish, not Italian: “Oh yeah,” Fonseca’s wife, Kim, tells the astonished Peter, “he’s that Mediterranean brand of Jew, I always want to say Seraphic.”) Then, in Ladies’ Man (1978), the action did move downtown, with a non-Italian, semi-well-educated protagonist: Kenny Becker, door-to-door salesman and hapless sexual adventurer. But, having concentrated on adolescence up in the Bronx, Price now skipped over the twenties, making Kenny thirty, alienated, pretty much beyond recall; and again the jazzily evoked sociocultural scenery—the bar/brothel world of the sexual revolution’s urban casualties—overshadowed the central figure, especially since whiny, empty Kenny proved to be such shallow company.

So, though The Breaks may have the rambling feel and the class-clown sound of straight-out-of-college testimony, you’d also expect it to offer a good deal more than the first novels it resembles. Price, after all, has apparently waited a decade to deal with Peter Keller, Class of ‘71. Wisely, however, he doesn’t share his hindsight with Peter, whose narration is of the moment—complete with limited self-awareness and wayward impulses—rather than retrospective. The book’s strengths arise instead from cumulative, even subliminal effects, from thoughtful construction: benefits, presumably, of Price’s estimable apprenticeship.

Some of those benefits are negative: mistakes not made, temptations resisted. Like most other writers with a gift for voices, Price has had a tendency to spotlight his dialect-ical powers, to let his flashy riffing become an end in itself. But now, with cascades of Bronx argot and Lenny-Brucian spiel behind him, the countless verbal flourishes in The Breaks only rarely carry a distracting whiff of mere showboating.

More important, the episodic sprawl here is held together by subtle textures. Quite early on, nudged in the right direction (but never beaten over the head) by Peter’s narration, one can begin to read this novel not just as a post-adolescent’s adventures in grown-up-land, but as a flickering parade of has-beens, never-weres, and maybe somedays. If Ladies’ Man was a diorama of sexual loneliness, The Breaks is a son et lumière devoted to a far richer, more paradoxical subject: ambition and failure. And while interest in Peter’s next move may wane from time to time, there soon develops a murmurous sort of suspense about the losers and dreamers who cross his path at irregular intervals. Which brand of frustrated or doomed ambition waits just around the corner? Can the strikeout artist on deck manage to top—or even somehow redeem—the ones who’ve gone before?

The effect is infectious rather than repetitious: theme and variations, with Peter’s father, a post office clerk, at the center of an expanding circle full of failure. “I’d never realized, until it was just me and him”—Peter’s mother died when he was ten—“how nothing he was, how little he settled for.” By comparison, at the phone-solicitation job, Peter feels surrounded by “the most gifted collection of minimum-wage earners in the city”: dancers and actors whose hectic pursuit of fame throws him into a competitive “career panic.” But Peter’s overreaction to minor showbiz phenomena—he quivers enviously over a dance concert by a three-person company in a Hell’s Kitchen church, he hero-worships an unemployed actor with “the blubbery physique of an old madam”—only intensifies the small-potatoes pathos. In fact, when he moves on to the “seductive mediocrity” of the GPO, where the workers have more modest dreams (“of going to refrigerator-repair school, private-investigator school, getting on the day shift”), the two groups of colleagues are made to seem strangely, grimly similar.

It’s after Peter makes his first break, however, heading north to the Simon Straight campus, becoming a confrere to his former teachers, that the pageantry of failure really gets underway. Peter’s favorite faculty member, Dr. Jack (“Fat Jack”) Petty, has become chairman of the English department—but is discovered drinking Scotch out of a McDonald’s glass, on the verge of divorce and/or self-annihilation (via 360 pounds and seventy-five cigars a week). Modern Drama professor Bill Crown, another favorite, has a pathetic acting career behind him, an immaculate toupee, and an impulse to try for the big time again. But, above all, there’s Tony Fonseca, “failed-writer-in-residence,” an overage hipster who, even more tortured than Peter is by the success of others (“I can only read dead people”), is sure to take a permanent place in the cruelly ironic literature of the writer’s block: Tony’s four unfinished manuscripts sit side by side in four typing-paper boxes, and since the different thicknesses give off different tones when the boxes are hit with pencils (à la xylophone mallets), he’s able to perform a recognizable rendition of “Summertime.”

Still, if the tug and the pall of ambition give The Breaks a sardonic gravity that young Peter’s “ferocious case of the Who Am I’s” can’t in itself supply, the novel nonetheless belongs to Peter. And only something powerful, suspending, in his journey could possibly generate the pulse needed to sustain a 430-page monologue. That something certainly isn’t Peter’s decision about his future: it’s not easy to care greatly whether he goes to law school, becomes a stand-up comic, or drifts on in Simon Straight limbo. Nor is there much genuine tension in Peter’s love affair with the slightly older Kim Fonseca—who picks him up in a Chinese restaurant (he doesn’t yet know that she’s Tony’s wife) and takes him down a sexy, harrowing, dead-end road.

But starting in Yonkers and carrying through until almost the book’s last page, something does pull taut across Peter’s seemingly disjointed story: something about fathers and rivals, never quite spelled out, but with sinuous connections to those more up-front questions about ambition and failure. “I wanted to get caught by my father. I wanted him to accuse me so I could confess. I wanted him so pissed off he’d kick me out of the house.” That’s how Peter explains his impetuous venture into bomb hoaxes, without quite acknowledging the patricidal fantasy at work in his choice of bomb-threat targets. (Just before going into action as the “phone bomber,” however, Peter listens to a Doors song “about a kid whacking out his parents while they slept.”) In any case, Peter’s mild, passive father, Lou, doesn’t furnish the desired response. He’s terrified, not angry. In fact, even before Peter starts acting up, his not-so-dumb father senses the rage in the air. (Why hasn’t Lou been asking Peter about his law school plans? Because “I don’t want to wind up murdered in my sleep some night.”)

So Peter leaves home without “cracking the tension.” No bomb has gone off, no father/son blowup; just a farewell shoulder nudge, a substitute for either “a hug or a haymaker.” Soon he’s safely distant, his life coming together: the job, the body building, the show-business daydreams, Kim. But that undetonated explosion hangs on as an underplayed cliffhanger—especially once Peter realizes that he’s sleeping with the quasi-ex-wife of teacher-buddy Tony. Like Lou Keller, Tony is, in Peter’s eyes, a failure; Peter feels protective, tender (“a warm weepiness”), guilty, even agreeing to go along with Tony on a ghastly trip to Manhattan and Queens. Unlike Lou, however, Tony is eminently capable of the violence that Peter failed to extract from his father. And the love triangle that develops will eventually deliver the sort of collision that’s been a suspended chord since Yonkers: when Tony, revealed as a wife beater, shows a yen for some return bouts with Kim (who’s something of an accomplice/victim), Peter feels compelled to break Tony’s collarbone with a glass bottle of apple/grape juice.

A less experienced novelist would probably have been anxious to wrap all these hook-ups and parallels into a neat package of self-discovery. Price instead plays them out, through Peter’s half-awareness and through understated echoes, in a rough pattern that often has the messy, nagging quality of authentic psychological transition. For Tony and Peter, is there a vital connection between blocked ambition and the urge to both pummel and protect a less successful father? Price lets the question surface on its own, wisely leaves it unresolved. Similarly, the Peter/Kim/Tony triangle is marbled with only the most oblique, unclinical Oedipal colorations. When Peter learns that Kim is Tony’s wife, he’s shaken: “My teacher. The teacher. He could take her away from me. He’s the teacher. He was big.” Later, as the inevitable showdown looms, Peter finds himself thinking—from out of the blue—more about his mother: “I missed her more strongly than I ever had since I was a kid. One night I even started crying for her. I was going berserk and I had to have it out of me. I had to call Fonseca out….”

The Breaks is far from perfect. Not all of its occasional sloppiness, its adolescent smugness, can be explained away by the character of its twenty-three-year-old narrator. At least one vignette (a visit to Kim’s father, a song-writer who’s “Christianizing” rock ‘n’ roll lyrics) seems extraneous, especially in a novel that’s always in danger of going slack. But, with undercover craft and psychological sophistication made nearly invisible, Price has given uncommon weight and reach to a belated story of growing up. It’s his most spacious, most genuine work yet—and the best argument in recent fiction for young writers to save some of that coming-of-age material for another time, and another book.

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