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…

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