The protagonists of Richard Price’s first four novels suffer from the fatal weakness of character known to moralists, comedians, writers of tragedy, and bullshit artists as New York City. Brash and withdrawn; hangdog and prone to delusions of grandeur; cynical and compassionate; fixated on the quick score, the next hit; lousy with moments of grace and of violence; ineffectual yet capable of anything; hilarious and sad; speaking a rapid-fire Yiddish-Italian-black creole of poetry, bullshit, and monte-shark patter, New York City defines the Price hero. It gives him shape, explains him, demarcates the upper limit of what he can imagine and the depth to which he can sink. New York is an ideal he can fail to live up to, a con game, a baggie filled with baby laxative, a set of bad habits, the collective bonehead MO of eight million repeat offenders.
As a hungry young hopeful, raised in the Parkside Houses and Co-op City, Price got off to an admirable start with The Wanderers (1974), a loose-knit Bronx myth cycle, set in the early Sixties, that reads like a bunch of twice-told tales honed and crafted to wow upstaters, hillbillies, Californians, and other rubes, about life in the bad old Bronx. Some of the book’s sections are tinged with Ashcan Guignol worthy of EC Comics and others (including the unforgettable gang fight with a bunch of psychotic midgets called the Ducky Boys) approach magic realism in their blend of the preposterous with deadeye detail.
But like one of his own early protagonists, in the three novels that followed—Bloodbrothers (1976), Ladies’ Man (1978), and The Breaks (1983)—Price seemed to struggle to find a way to break the hold of New York City on his imagination. Wisely sensing that there was no percentage in attempting to repeat the extravagances of The Wanderers, Price reduced his crew of heroes from a Round Table of the Projects to a lone protagonist, abandoned the retrospective mythologizing, and brought his characters and milieu into what was then present-day New York. He laid even greater emphasis on black humor (Bloodbrothers features some excruciating, horribly funny scenes charting the misadventures of its hero Stony De Coco as a hospital orderly). He began to practice a funky, Seventies brand of street-level reportage, training onto a quirky range of New York City subcultures (the building trades, the central post office, telephone sales, singles bars) a descriptive eye as acute as his moral one—for no American writer has ever written with such consistent power as Price on the subject of shame, of the failure of good intentions, of life as lived in the gap between Intention and Act.
The intermittently brilliant, sometimes stolidly written novels that followed The Wanderers all chart the progress, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say they advance the stasis, of an interchangeable series of cocky, sympathetic, fucked-up, motor-mouthed Bronx boys who contend with forces of character and fate recognizable both from classical tragedy and from the post-Odets New York noir that reimagined…
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