It was inevitable, given the rough language and the graphic depiction of sex and violence, as well as the focus on the brutalizing effect of the urban environment (the Bronx) on young protagonists, that critics would place Richard Price’s first two novels, The Wanderers (1974) and Bloodbrothers (1976) in the tradition of literary Naturalism and their author in the company of James T. Farrell, with a dash of William Burroughs, John Rechy, and Hubert Selby. Although accurate to a degree, the Naturalist tag fails to account for the comic grotesquerie that makes up a substantial part of Price’s exploration of loneliness and failure in American life, particularly in the first-person works Ladies’ Man (1978) and The Breaks. Both suggest a certain indebtedness to Nathanael West and, more important, Stanley Elkin. One finds in The Breaks many of the same qualities that have made Elkin one of the best—and the funniest—contemporary American writers: the pyrotechnic verbal display (less flamboyant and more accessible in Price’s case), the understated theme-and-variation structure (often dismissed by plot-minded critics as digressive or episodic), and the recycling of the dreck of the popular culture in a way which is at once satirical and compassionate. Price’s fiction may be as weighted with specific detail as Theodore Dreiser’s, but the effect is different, emphasizing the incongruities and absurdities of modern life rather than its grim determinism. There are television shows (from “Joe Franklin” and “Topper” to “Mod Squad”), films, rock songs, cartoon strips, advertising slogans, name-brand cleansers (Bab-O, Comet), Flagg Brothers shoes, polyurethaned college diplomas, twenty-five-dollar gift certificates to E. J. Korvette’s discount department store, The Official U. S. Navy Rock and Roll Recruiting Band, singles bars where patrons cha-cha to James Brown, a Greek luncheonette named Two Guys from Corfu, a supper-club menu written “in bar mitzvah French ... Roast beef au jus avec French Fries,” and shopping malls in which the air is alive with the sound of Muzak and the stores have been renamed Sheds, Attics, Corners, and the like. It is in such a world that Price’s characters yearn for satisfaction and fulfillment and, quite understandably, fail to find them.
The odyssey of unfulfilled longing in The Breaks begins on a June graduation day in 1971 at Simon Straight College, “the Harvard of upstate New York” (or, more factually, Cornell University, from which Price was graduated the same year). Peter Keller is the pride of his family and the hope of their future, their first college graduate, “the happy ending to our private little American Everyman play.” For Peter, however, American reality and American dream are incompatible. Unlike his well-connected college friends who have gotten “the breaks,” Peter only makes the waiting list at Columbia University’s law school. Prepared to move ahead in the world, he finds himself on hold or, worse, thrust back in time. Returning to Yonkers to live with his father and stepmother, Peter feels like a sixteen-year-old trapped in a slapstick Oedipal crisis—a crisis that teeters on the edge of something more significant both for Peter and for the reader, who understands that Peter’s situation is cultural as well as individual.
Although Peter suffers from “the Gregor Samsas,” his nemesis is quite unlike Franz Kafka’s stern parent. The father with whom Peter struggles—or shadowboxes—is a silent, unambitious drone who has spent the last twenty years selling stamps at the city post office. The son realizes “how nothing” the father is, yet it is precisely this nothingness that hangs around his neck, more a millstone than an albatross. He responds to his parent ambivalently, alternating love and loathing, uncertain whether his father deserves to be kicked or cared for. Peter wants his freedom and manhood, but he also wants his father’s recognition and love.
More troubling than who Peter’s father is, is what his father represents: the (lower) middle-class dream of upward mobility and the good life on the one hand and the failure of that dream on the other. (When father and son move from the Hispanicized Bronx to what the father calls the country, Yonkers, they take up residence in a housing project originally intended for the well-to-do, but out of necessity, rented to refugees from the boroughs: failures entombed alive in another failure.) Peter responds to the American dream as ambivalently as he responds to his father, believing it one moment, despising it the next. Longing to be one of the famous (and feeling guilty because he is not), he pores over copies of People magazine, but in his real (not fantasy) life, he seems to court failure. The first time he takes the law boards, for example, he is hung over; the next time he scores a phenomenal 748 but perversely does not bother to reapply anywhere. Instead, he accepts a number of dead-end jobs. At American Communicators, a telephone sales operation, Peter meets a homosexual actor named James Madison and a too-large would-be dancer, Randye, the first of several surrogates for Peter’s 250-pound mother, eleven years dead. Immediately, he mythologizes them, as well as all of the other workers hidden away in their phone cubicles, into a select group of theatrical people on the road to fame and wealth: aspiring, talented, determined. Believing his own mythology, Peter decides to forget law school and to follow James and Randye. “As a kid, my class-clown nickname had been Speedo. I wanted to be called Speedo again. Like all the dancers, the ventriloquists, the actors, I wanted to bask in my own brand of ace-hood.” What he fails to understand is that for all of their acting lessons and dance practices,...
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