Richard Price Price, Richard (Vol. 6) - Essay

Price, Richard (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Price, Richard 1949–

Price is an American novelist whose autobiographical first novel, The Wanderers, chronicles an urban jungle of the Sixties. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

I was led by the advance praise to read Richard Price's [The Wanderers], which is a series of loosely connected short stories about lower-class gang youth in the Bronx. It's not a bad book; it has moments of insight, some good writing, and a particularly strong and effective portrait of conflict between a muscular, macho father and his painfully striving son. But it is not the major work that [some critics] want to claim. Perhaps all these writers know each other and it's a case of literary back-scratching, which is presumed okay because novelists and poets have, relatively, such a hard time being noticed at all. (It is odd only to the degree that writers who in their own writing proclaim their unsullied integrity indulge in it.) More likely, it's a matter of writers being flattered to have their opinion asked and reacting helpfully accordingly. Writers are not enough appreciated in this country and, by the nature of their lonely craft, tend to be egocentric and vulnerable to the slightest forms of flattery, and being asked for an opinion is one of the greatest. Anyway, The Wanderers is simply not, in risky conception or sustained powers or horrifying resonance, comparable to Last Exit to Brooklyn, much less to the stories of Odysseus. It is more like a contemporary Studs Lonigan, an unsentimental West Side Story. No great surprises, but ably and honestly done. Good enough should be good enough. (p. 78)

Eliot Fremont-Smith, in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Eliot Fremont-Smith), April 1, 1974.

Because Richard Price is such a fine artist we experience all areas of the lives of The Wanderers—the adult posturings, the fears, the fear of fear, the sexual myths and fumblings; we know the rage at a world that says you are either too young or too old; we see the dramatic romanticism of the boys as they try to play a role they do not understand.

Although ["The Wanderers"] is a book specifically about adolescence, and a portion of the Bronx, its scope goes beyond the emotions of teen-agers and the setting of the Big Playground. Richard Price has the empathy and objectivity of a true artist, and so we also experience the adult world outside, struggling with its own inadequacies, ignorance, misconceptions.

"The Wanderers" is an outstanding work of art because Mr. Price never imposes himself on the reader. His dialogue is musically true and emotionally correct. He respects his art and his subject, and illuminates our daily world with insights that allow us—at times force us—to feel closer to other human beings whether we like and approve of them or not. (p. 38)

Hubert Selby Jr., in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 21, 1974.

Sexual gropings and lower-class ambience ring true [in The Wanderers, but] the action falters. The book resembles 12 related short stories more than it does a novel. There is no real thrust of plot, or even a central character. The first chapter promises a gang war, but doesn't deliver. This may be just as well. The author has much to learn concerning the techniques of building suspense and staging dramatic action. The rumbles and deaths happen, as the author would express it, "suddenly." A speedy reader could easily miss a key head-bashing. Some sequences move so fast, there is confusion as to what actually transpired. In one instance, I wasn't sure if a boy raped his fat old mother (as he fantasized earlier) or if he merely allowed her to take his temperature with an anal thermometer. A page later, Mom is dead, the son on the rampage. As we said in those days: "Wha hoppen?"

Still, the narrative goes down, like the much-mentioned Tango wine: raw, unreliable, but for a while anyway, highly potent. If you drink deeply, you may even cry when the boys embrace as a scratchy record whines out a last rendition of their theme song. The boys are "trying to make a circle which nothing could penetrate—school, women, babies, weddings, mothers, fathers."

The circle breaks: the "wanderers" stumble into their dumb, dead end lives. Pessimistic? Realistic? Yes, but shouldn't there have been one wanderer who was going to get his Master's in Fine Arts at Columbia?

Laura Cunningham, "'The Wanderers'," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc.), May 16, 1974, p. 37.

The Wanderers [is composed of twelve] loosely joined stories that make up a first novel about a gang of boys growing up in the Bronx in the early sixties. They provide the reader with a fairly entertaining pop-sociological wallow, but they do not succeed very well as fiction. For one thing, the author shows off his good ear for street talk a bit too indiscriminately. Constant exchanges of this sort—"Whadya mean?" "Yeah, whadya kiddin'?" "You're our main man, man." "Awright"—soon make the reader feel rather punchy. For another, the stories are very repetitive. It's not always easy to tell one Wanderer from another, chiefly because the boys' individual qualities and histories seem to be less important to Mr. Price than their shared ones: poverty, gang wars, oily pompadours, stifling housing-project apartments, cruel-to-indifferent parents, girl friends with beehive hairdos, and musical gods with names like Tommy Tooky and the Zircons. (p. 150)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), May 20, 1974.

Price knows that each voice, each person, counts, and he knows how to make each count. Since loneliness and brutality and bigotry and squalor are facts of all the lives, no one, no matter how brutal or squalid, is excluded from Price's gaze or care. His ear, in the technical sense, is fine, but the emotional range of what it hears is very narrow indeed. Price does not freeze his characters, but lets them be everything, so what they feel and know are the limits of his world. He will occasionally allow himself a sentence of stylish writing—"As for Frank, he was friendless although he had many enemies"—but by and large what the language of his people says is all that is known of them.

Because we are dealing with vignettes and stories, the limitation is rarely felt, page by page, since Price tells the tales well and his respect for his characters dignifies everything. But because the characters, of necessity, are pretty dumb people, his insistence that they be everything tends to idealize them … not by making them ideal, but by making them beyond reproach, in a way beyond the need to be understood. Hannah Green is quoted on the dust jacket as saying the Wanderers "themselves have a heroic quality. Something chivalric—like the Knights of the Round Table." I think she's right, though her language is needlessly extravagant. But what I take to be praise from her is what I see as Price's limiting defect.

Still, The Wanderers is a good novel. Life is lived in it. (p. 26)

Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), June 27, 1974.