Richard Price

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Richard Price 1949–

American novelist. Price's novels are realistic depictions of growing up male in New York City which explore both the specific and universal problems that arise from having to mature in an urban environment. The main question Price's characters ask themselves is whether they have the courage to break away from the security offered by a group: a gang, the traditions of a family, or even the heterosexual classification. Price's works have been written directly from experience, especially his first novel, The Wanderers, which deals with what he calls "my Bronx-housing project, pre-Beatle kidhood." Written at age 24, this novel received accolades from authors such as John Fowles, William Burroughs, and Hannah Green, and established Price's reputation as a literary boy wonder. Price's next novel, Bloodbrothers, continues his theme of adolescent searching, and relates it to a young man's questions about his family and his future. The success of these two books has caused Price to be considered, along with filmmaker Martin Scorcese and musician Bruce Springsteen, as part of the trio who are responsible for creating a contemporary mythology around East Coast street life. Price's latest novel, Ladies' Man, is a departure from his stories of the Italian-American experience, being a wry study of sexuality and the male mystique. Price's novels have been criticized for their excessive violence, explicit sex scenes, rawness of language, and similarity of characters and situations. Price has also been considered a pessimistic writer due to the hopelessness of his endings. However, he has been praised for his objective, sensitive portrayals and his respect for the dignity of his characters, as well as for his lively naturalistic writing style and accurate dialogue. As a chronicler of the wanderings of young people looking for meaning in life, Price brings the understanding that comes with recent personal experience to his works, and gives them relevance and a distinctive approach. Both The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers have been adapted for film. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

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At first it looks as if Richard Price is contriving extreme effects for their own sake in his first novel, "The Wanderers"…. By the end of the second story we have been treated not only to a torrent of street language that can't be sampled here and a swamp of sexual byplay that can't be described, but also to one aborted race war, one gang skirmish complete with Molotov cocktails and a scene in which two preteen-agers are threatened with mutilation of their genitals. Mr. Price is never one to underplay his scenes….

Still, it pays to keep reading "The Wanderers." For if Mr. Price's exaggerations seem troublesome at first, it is only because we haven't yet adjusted to the world in which they occur. We haven't yet appreciated the authenticity of his dialogue, which establishes itself only through its cumulative repetition of flat grammatical contortions ("Hey, this is Despie," says Buddy Borsalino, introducing to the Wanderers a girl whose "Juicy Fruit breath" has just begun to "intoxicate him." "Despie … this is the guys."). We haven't yet discovered that if Mr. Price's characters are pitched in a violent key—if they talk with their fists and dream of little else but treating their "seemingly incurable virginity"—their violence masks tenderness as well as brutality….

And it hasn't yet dawned on us that if Mr. Price's exaggerations are occasionally contrived, then just as often they ascend to a surrealism that justifies them entirely—as for instance when that playground football game is broken up by a horde of Irish Catholic "midgets" called the Ducky Boys, and there follows a glorious melee so...

(This entire section contains 565 words.)

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bloody and brutal, so flashing with tire chains, car aerials and straight razors, and yet so comparatively harmless in its physical consequences, that it can only be read as a sort of poem of violence.

And once we get used to Mr. Price's world, we believe it….

Indeed, so accustomed do we become to the violence and obscenity of Mr. Price's world that any act short of outright murder assumes a quality of near-Chekhovian understatement. What had first seemed to be gratuitous brutality begins to impress us as a metaphor signifying the vitality of lower-class life. And so we find ourselves feeling gently nostalgic when the Wanderers take Buddy out for his final bachelor fling and present him with a going-away gift of "400 foil-wrapped Trojans." And when musclebound Emilio accepts the news of his son's departure from home without hitting him in the stomach or bloodying his nose, it seems nothing less than a scene of gentle blessing.

In the end the Wanderers take their separate paths out of innocent youth onto the treadmill of adulthood—some by way of marriage, others by way of the services. Eugene Caputo, after standing helplessly by while his girl friend is raped by a black man wielding a razor, decides to join the Marines in order to absorb his mother's admonition "that the two greatest joys of being a man are beating the hell out of someone and getting the hell beaten out of you." The final measure of Richard Price's accomplishment in writing "The Wanderers" is that, after all we've been put through, we can read this warning to be meant ironically.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Brutality as a Sign of Life," in The New York Times (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 20, 1974, p. 39.

Rick Kogan

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Ah, to be 24 and have written "The Wanderers." To have captured the essence of the urban-American dream. To have taken a theme as old as the novel itself—the loss of innocence—and fashioned it as few have before. Ah, to be 24-year-old Richard Price and have written one of the few powerful and worthwhile novels of the year….

The language of "The Wanderers" is tough, the gang's actions often crude and vulgar. But it is an important novel for just those reasons. It is real. It is a work that tells its tale in the best possible way—using real characters in a real world. There is no sermonizing, no agonizing wasted space.

Richard Price has gathered the pieces to the puzzle of his own youth and the puzzle of growing up in urban America. In "The Wanderers" he has put all the pieces together and they fit like a charm.

Rick Kogan, "… and a Gang of the 1960s," in The Chicago Sun-Times (reprinted with permission of The Chicago Sun-Times), March 31, 1974.

Susan Heath

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Richard Price, with a raunchy humor that smarts from the slap of reality, writes of growing up Italian in the Bronx during the early Sixties. He focuses on a teenage gang called the Wanderers as they skirmish through playgrounds, candy stores, and deserted lots during their last year together.

[The Wanderers is] a snappily paced novel that beats with the rhythm of street patter. And the sewer-mouthed boys who spit it out are characterized with deftness and economy….

Though The Wanderers reeks of ghetto life, it is not just another first novel about the slums. It is, rather, a story about nothing less than the universal drama: growing up, getting laid, learning to cry "I am." (p. 52)

Susan Heath, in Saturday Review/World (© 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 4, 1974.

Michael Rogers

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[The Wanderers] could be the flip side of American Graffiti: The time is the early Sixties, the kids are high-school age, the music is the Four Seasons, Dion, Smokey Robinson—but there the similarities end. These kids live in housing projects in the Bronx, run in gangs, rumble with car aerials and straight razors, and in general lead lives sufficiently grim to make the small-town pranks and repressed sexuality of the American Graffiti crew look like material for Hans Christian Andersen. Price's book chronicles the adventures and depredations of one gang, the Wanderers, during their last year of high school—an amalgam of sex, violence and humor, glued together with superb dialogue and unsentimental sensitivity….

While the book is clearly episodic, and many of the chapters could easily stand on their own as short stories, Price nonetheless manages to blend his humor and horror to create a sense of wholeness. A novelist friend of mine contends no one in America really changes after high school, and that seems to be Price's conclusion as well. At the last full gathering of the Wanderers—at Buddy Borsalino's wedding—they "stood with arms around each other's shoulders, fingers pressing into flesh, trying to make a circle which nothing could penetrate—school, women, babies, weddings, mothers, fathers." But it is clear, as they drift away later, that the circle was never impermeable in the first place; that the words of the gang's theme song—"I roam from town to town/I go through life without a care"—are as aptly mocking of the kids from the Bronx as any they might have chosen. (p. 73)

Michael Rogers, in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1974; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 160, May 9, 1974.

John Lahr

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There have been stunning books about black ghetto life, but Richard Price's The Wanderers finds its own place among the chronicles of urban turmoil by focusing on a white community, one step up from the black ghetto, in housing projects on the outskirts of the bourgeois dream. These are the children of blue-collar workers who with no stigma attached to their skin, no "heritage" of slavery, still find themselves excluded from America's abundant table.

The backbeat of rock'n roll pounds behind the cunning descriptions of family battles, the ferocious territorial feuds between gangs, and the make-out sessions. Rock'n roll promises action and joy in a world that offers little chance of change or happiness. The gang takes its name from the song "The Wanderer" by Dion and the Belmonts:

          I roam from town to town
          I go through life without a care….

As the desperation in the gang's lives unfolds, the sounds which define their good times come to seem like their epitaphs….

Mr Price's outrage at the violence of the city is matched by deep affection for its survivors. He captures the sweeter moments of city living—a love song dedicated over a request radio show; "elbow-titting" passers-by on the street; the strained patter when boy picks up girl. "I once went up in the elevator with Murray the K", says Despie, trying to impress her husband-to-be on their first encounter. "Jackie the K's a real piece". Buddy replies, one-upping her with the name of the disc jockey's wife and adding: "No offence." Every move Mr Price makes has this poise and sense of detail; and his novel represents a remarkable victory over his own past.

John Lahr, "School for Losers." in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 30, 1975, p. 585.

Eliot Fremont-Smith

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[Bloodbrothers is a] tough, dramatic novel about an Italian-American working-class family and a son's attempts to break out of a ruinously confining value system centered on mawkish or brutal (nothing in-between) images of masculinity…. The style is strictly "naturalistic," the momentum energetic, the mood at once gritty, funny, and quite horrendous. The novel's considerable force also derives from its authenticity: Price clearly knows what he is talking about, both the surface detail and the feelings roiling just beneath. He is sharply observant of these, understanding, not patronizing. (p. 46)

Eliot Fremont-Smith in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), April 26, 1976.

Greil Marcus

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Price's first book, The Wanderers … was not a great novel, but it was a stunning first novel (and not incidentally the first fiction to bring rock & roll into its characters' lives with the naturalness of Scorsese's Mean Streets). Unfortunately, Bloodbrothers, a sort of Italian working-class Catcher in the Rye, is not even a very good second novel. Eighteen-year-old Stony De Coco is trying to break free of his family and become his own man, but the reader may have to strain to care about the struggle, especially if the reader has already been through The Wanderers. Price has dressed up his earlier themes in new clothes, but that's all…. One would think the only story Price has to tell is that of Sisyphus. The one character who rises out of the book is a girl named Three-Finger Annette, who comes and goes in a few pages; she's who I wanted to read a novel about when I finished Bloodbrothers, but I wonder if Price isn't too locked into the romantic tragedies of adolescent males to write it. (p. 97)

Greil Marcus, in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1976; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 213, May 20, 1976.

Richard Elman

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"Bloodbrothers" … is a book with a thesis: family loyalty is the ultimate treason to oneself.

Like some proletarian fictions of a few decades back, this story of Stony De Coco, 18, and his clan grinds and blusters from point to point, undeterred by Price's feeling for life or his dramatic gifts. As Stony chooses between the family racket … and realizing his own possibilities in the world of strangers beyond the confines of Co-op City, the Bronx, incidents from the psychopathic behavior of the De Cocos, their wives, friends and other wounded kinfolk, proliferate as illustrations of a subtext about the mutual destructiveness of those who still comply to the hoary doctrine that blood is thicker than water; however, the author never allows his substantial powers of observation and empathy to keep in focus, or perhaps animate this. When all else fails Price's rather distant and contemptuous estimation of what such unpleasant, chagrined, consuming, stupefied proles are about, he introduces a psychiatrist to sermonize to Stony. Or a best friend, who owns a hosiery shop, is made to deliver a summary that recalls what one might hear in Manhattan, perhaps, in therapy.

This sort of coercion of characters to do their author's dirty work is always a saddening, disappointing process. It's a sin against talent, and art, the eye, the ear, the emotions. In "Bloodbrothers" Price has closed his eyes and stopped up his ears and composed page after page of hostile, insult-laden dialogue interspersed with a hyped-up colloquial narrative through which the reader is bullied to sustain the illusion that the story has been composed by somebody with a background similar to that of the participants.

But, of course, this is just another literary device: within this work the author's total knowledge of what is happening to people is constantly pitted against the blindness of his characters, and the result is almost as brutalizing to us and Price, it would seem, as what we are told has been happening to Stony and his aunt and uncle, father, mother, kid brother and girlfriends. (pp. 42-3)

Most of the time Price isn't content to understate, to let things happen, or even take a chance that the situation of these people is even more ugly or desperate than he knows. If his characters won't cooperate in being utterly unredeemable, he twists their arms or stomps on them a bit. Stony sometimes sounds like a Lenny Bruce monologue and sometimes like an angry analysand; and I began to wonder if all the malice in the book could be attributed to the characters. Or was it not the work of imperfect patience and compassion of the part of the author?

Compassion doesn't mean liking; that was not a serious flaw in Price's much celebrated first novel, "The Wanderers," which depicted a similar milieu. But it's no help at all to a writer if he feels superior to his characters; [Maxim] Gorky knew that, as do our contemporaries, [Gilbert] Sorrentino and [Hubert] Selby. But this sort of stuff is more like a dirty-mouthed Italianate Hyman Kaplan: a few touches aspiring to art, and much of the rest simply kibitzing or commentary. (p. 43)

Richard Elman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 23, 1976.

Gerard C. Reedy

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Since the De Cocos, Price's main characters [in Bloodbrothers], and I live in the same borough, I am reluctant to admit that my fellow Bronxites realistically and constantly talk, think and act this dirtily. That aside, some of Price's episodes are achingly moving, especially when Stony, the hero, talks to the kids in the hospital and when Chubby, his uncle, reminisces. Will Stony become an electrician, like his dad and uncle? Or a worker with hospitalized children? Memorable minor characters make each option believable for him. Although Price's solution is ineptly premature, Bloodbrothers offers powerful writing on almost every page. The author, like his hero, has great story-telling gifts; he also has a good feel for loneliness in the high-rise buildings of New York, or anywhere. (p. 332)

Gerard C. Reedy, in America (© America Press, 1976; all rights reserved), November 13, 1976.

Julian Barnes

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[Bloodbrothers] is a smart, professional example of the post-Selby genre of lower-depths chic. Perhaps the continuing bankruptcy of New York is behind the flowering of this school, in which your archetypal American family beat and cheat one another, drive each other bananas, and then ensure that the vicious cycle continues into the next generation…. As one of the more detached characters puts it, 'the whole fuckin' Bronx is like a combination open-air loony bin an' Red Cross disaster tent, right?' If right, one ought to thank Price for his report from the battle-zone; instead, one worries about why he makes such a shapely, saleable artefact out of it, why the book-club classes will read the novel as they might go to the zoo to watch panthers, and whether the whole genre isn't the Gothic of our time, designed to be read in suburban ranch-houses, by affluent readers straight out of Charles Webb, as a nice change from the Sears Roebuck catalogue. (p. 681)

Julian Barnes, in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 20, 1977.

Stephen Fender

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Bloodbrothers is an old American story with a new ending: an adolescent undergoes a rite de passage, then returns home instead of lighting out for the territories. Mr Price's technique mirrors this tension between freedom and captivity. On the surface the novel is liberated from decorum and cliché. The dialogue has the energetic authentic sound made familiar by [Hubert Selby's] Last Exit to Brooklyn and recent films like Mean Streets and Dog Day Afternoon. But underneath it is conventionally authoritarian: heavily plotted, not in the serio-comic manner of Thomas Pynchon, but in the more ordinary sense of seeming contrived. For instance, Stony has a friend who seems almost magically transformed from a moron to a sage dispenser of friendly counsel when he takes over the management of his uncle's lingerie store—a rather obvious foil for Stony. The events leading to Stony's final renunciation seem especially hard to credit; too much happens too quickly, without apparent cause or convincing effect.

This tension between surface and plot may, of course, be intended since there is a similar vacillation in point of view. The book seems anxious to break free from stereotypes about New York. Blacks and whites enjoy unselfconscious friendships. Policemen and nurses are not pigs and tyrants but wary, rather kindly people trying to help where they can. Even the "hard hats" get a voice. But along with this desire to accommodate, to see the other man's point of view, goes a nervousness about "point of view" in the narrative sense. No sooner does Stony finish telling his friend Butler about his wild night with Annette (a superb piece of writing) than the narrative bustles around to old Three Fingers's place to register her life-story, what she thought of their night together, how she imagines Stony talking about it later. No sooner do we witness the conversation between Dr Harris and Stony about Albert, than we go inside the doctor's head for his view of the case. Mr Price leaves very little white space. Like Tommy De Coco, he does not always trust his offspring.

Stephen Fender, "Electrical Storms," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 1, 1977, p. 812.

Moving his Bronx characters downtown to Manhattan proves traumatic to Price (The Wanderers, Bloodbrothers); he picks up a bad case of angst [in Ladies' Man]…. What keeps this book afloat long past its torpedoing point is Price's Lenny Bruce-ish, shpritz-style riffery. The high point is a first chapter in which Kenny accompanies La Donna to an audition at a nightclub that perversely caters to connoisseurs of no-talents; next best is Kenny listening to a late-night call-in show, with its requisite I'm-gonna-kill-myself caller. But the voice becomes tiring. Price's disdainful eye, really interested only in watching Kenny, often just winks nastily: a girl in a movie-theater lobby is one of those "minor dancers living in body stockings, hair in a bun, shy, always giving and getting something ceramic and Chinese for presents." Like one of the callers to those phone-in shows, Price is mostly talking to hear himself maintain a solo; the message—we all need someone—is small beer, and Kenny's concluding, scouring descent into S & M depravity comes off less like fiery purification than like a letter home to Mom from Camp Götterdamerung. Jazzy. Empty. (p. 773)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1978 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), July 15, 1978.

John Fludas

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Kenny Becker [in Ladies' Man] narrates his own story of a week-long panic that breaks out when La Donna, the woman he lives with, leaves him and forces him to share his apartment with a person he knows to be part fraud, part dreamer, a college dropout going through some premature mid-life crisis: himself. Like the untalented comedians and singers who try out for a pitiful amateur showcase in the brilliant first chapter of Ladies' Man, Becker, too, wants his place in a spotlight, to be acceptable to others and to himself….

In this book, Richard Price can do anything with words. He can shape a tightly structured novel, yet allow scenes to expand freely. Better than most writers who try to record street talk, he has a quick ear for the varieties of English spoken in New York. He gives Kenny a wit almost as sharp and jaundiced as Holden Caulfield's in The Catcher in the Rye. He captures the spurts of rage of Kenny's mind, gives him airborne fantasies, creates settings that reverberate with his emotional state—his isolation in a packed singles' bar, his frenzy in a porno booth as he peeps through glass at nude women shouting dirty talk into microphones, his terror and excitement in gay bars.

The novel ends on an upbeat that is neither forced nor sentimental. It grows naturally out of the fibers of Kenny's character. (p. 52)

John Fludas, in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), September 30, 1978.

Laura Mathews

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In two earlier books … Richard Price has documented the proud, cheerless world of New York City's white working-class youths, and the special bind of high school camaraderie. In Ladies' Man that mystique emerges, ambivalently, as the romantic anchor for Kenny's faltering confidence.

Price risks everything on the persuasiveness of his hero's voice, for the plot is static and the story has all the structure of a skin flick (which may be intentional). Kenny's speech verges on the solipsistic, yet is energized by urban patois ("did up some coffee," "whigged," "riffed"). It reflects both bravado and a panicky need to ward off the bad stuff he meets on the street ("I mean, I wasn't no depresso, was I?").

Though its gaminess will offend many readers, Ladies' Man is a remarkably sustained portrait of a present-day underground man. (p. 116)

Laura Mathews, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1978 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), October, 1978.

Jeffrey Burke

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Ladies' Man is an effective depiction of loneliness, and Richard Price is an expert on the fulsome and frenzied aspects of New York City. Kenny Becker is a perfectly conceived character; so perfect, in fact, that he is thoroughly unpleasant to listen to at book-length. The clichés, the hipness, the latest urban argot, the masculinity so overweening that it whines—in short, the unrelenting gracelessness, however true to the social type Kenny represents, demands a high degree of tolerance or a peculiar affection for dialect. But that is a native New Yorker's reaction: outside city limits Kenny may well be considered good company. (p. 97)

Jeffrey Burke, in Harper's (copyright © 1978 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the October, 1978 issue by special permission), October, 1978.

Jerome Charyn

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Richard Price has an amazing ear and eye for the street. He presents us [in "Ladies' Man"] with a cityscape that is filled with powerful spooks….

Richard Price collects the dung and scrap heaps of our urban culture in a frightening, electrical style. But the book's main problem is Kenny himself; Kenny gets in the way of the narrative with his 50-cent truths. At times he sounds like a hip Benjamin Franklin in platform shoes, dreaming wise thoughts as he gobbles on a stale roll: "Why was it that everybody seemed to have more friends when they were kids than when they were adults?" (p. 32)

It's this sort of claptrap that harms the book, because it gives us Richard Price's silliness rather than Kenny Becker's infantile rage. But "Ladies' Man" still has its bite. It's a disturbing, freaky novel about sexual disgust and the pornography of our everyday lives. (pp. 32, 34)

Jerome Charyn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 12, 1978.


Price, Richard (Vol. 6)