In the fourth novel by Richard Price, The Breaks, we meet Peter Keller, a recent college graduate who tries to figure out what to do with his life after not being accepted into law school. He moves back to New York City and lives at home while working various jobs, before returning to his college town, which has changed in the couple of years since he left. At first, this book reminded me of the early George Pelecanos series featuring Nick Stefanos, who was also a young adult trying to figure out what he was going to do in life. And while some of the urban New York City scenes featuring drugs and alcohol were Pelecanos-esque, to me the book hit the breaks in the middle when Keller entered a relationship with the ex-wife of a colleague and pal. After reading previous Price novels featuring gritty urban action, I expected more of the same. But Price, like Keller, seems to searching for his identity as he matures. The Breaks is similar to this review: Decent, but could have been better.
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Richard Price returns again with another gritty portrayal of New York City in the 1970s. In Ladies’ Man, the main character is Kenny Becker, a door-to-door salesman with a golden tongue and a gift for relationship problems. We follow a week in Kenny’s life as he tries to repair one relationship while looking for others in various different Big Apple nightlife scenarios. Kenny visits singles bars, peep shows, massage parlors and even ventures down to Christopher Street — home of the seedy alternative lifestyle bars — but the most memorable locale may be Fantasia, which was the scene of a talent contest and reminds me of the stories I’ve heard about famous Studio 54 nightclub. While in line for Fantasia, Kenny meets a cat named Jackie di Paris, who is described as: “A big solid blond dude….He’s built like a fullback and wore a black vinyl, lightweight, wet-look jacket over a floral body shirt open to the sternum. He had enough chest hair for a national park and six strands of gold chains were crisscrossing under his collarbone….His dark brown chest fur clashed with his metallic blond hairdo.” While 70s retro may be cool in today’s movies, there’s just no topping Price’s narrative on the 70s people and places that he wrote in the 70s. Like Price’s first two books, Ladies’ Man is an eye opener when it comes to the seedy side of the city, and once again, the main character comes to the realization that he needs to grow up and escape the temptation of the Big Apple.
Similar to The Wanderers, Richard Price‘s first novel that was later made into a movie, Bloodbrothers is another intense and somewhat graphic look at a New York City teenager from a working-class family, this time set in the mid-1970s. As you can tell from his name, Stony De Coco is a rugged 18-year-old, torn between following in his father’s footsteps and becoming an electrician or following his heart and working with kids in a hospital. Why the soft spot for children? Well, it turns out Stony’s eight-year-old brother, Albert, is anorexic due to physical and emotional abuse from his mother. Stony’s job is to protect Albert and helping children comes to natural to him. Stony is also a natural when it comes to adapting to the adult lifestyle, as he already smokes and drinks, often with his father and uncle Chubby, who is also an electrician. Scenes involving the trio often show the seedy side of the Big Apple. Times Square porn shops, hookers and muggers in Spanish Harlem are all on display, as well as typical old-school things everyone remembers from the ’70s such as large Afros, platform shoes, kung fu and even a discussion of who would win a fight between Bruce Lee and Shaft. Another interesting aspect of the book is the portrayal of the construction site. If you’ve seen the Soprano’s, this is a very similar construction site, minus the mob. A lot of money is being made and very little work is being done. Thanks to his old man, Stony gets into the union but if he gives up his apprentice job, he may not get another chance. Similar to his first novel, the language used by Price’s characters can be course, obscene and often racist. There is also a hearty dose of sex in the book and none of the characters seem to have much in the way of morals, which makes this another gritty, urban novel that is enjoyable but also eye-opening at times.
I’m a huge fan of the HBO series, The Wire, and a writer friend recently loaned me a couple of books by Richard Price, one of the show’s magnificent writers. Since George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane are two of my favorite novelists, and since those two also wrote episodes of The Wire, it seems to reason that I will also like the works of Price. So far, things are looking promising. Several years ago, I saw the movie The Wanderers and thought it was decent. As is usually the case, the book turned out to be better than the movie. Was it a masterpiece? Many will say yes, although I don’t normally read “urban” fiction and my bias toward mystery and espionage leads me to label the book as pretty good, especially for a first novel. Similar to Pelecanos (Washington, D.C.) and Lehane (Boston), Price writes about a city he grew up in and knows intimately, in this case the Bronx borough of New York City. Set in 1963, the book follows the everyday lives of several members of The Wanderers, a teenage street gang. Disturbing at times, the book’s raw sex, extreme violence and often racist dialogue can be eye-opening and not surprisingly, the movie was toned down a bit. (Speaking of movies, for some reason I kept thinking of A Bronx Tale, set in the same time period.) Naturally, the book features gangs fighting each other. But the toughest battle for The Wanderers — and all of their rivals — seems to be gang cohesion as members mature and ultimately leave the group. As Price becomes a more seasoned writer, I can’t wait to read some of his later books, including Clockers, which was made into a movie by Spike Lee.