Although it launched his career and, in some ways, permanently defined what people expect from his writing, The Wanderers is remarkably different from most of Richard Price’s later works. He’s now come to be known for his vivid, true-to-life realism, a style which to some extent demands that the author rein in his or her own voice to keep it from taking the reader’s attention off of the action. But the author of The Wanderers seems more than willing to direct some attention towards his own voice, given how much he elbow-jabs the reader with deadpan wisecracks about the characters and their world. And certain moments–the over-the-top violence of the football field brawl, for example–indicate that realism per se was not this book’s primary ambition. It’s a book about youth written with a young man’s bravado, objectivity and verisimilitude be damned.
The thing that really stands out about The Wanderers‘ style and subject matter, though, is not their larger-than-life nature but the skill with which Price crafts and wields them. His writing would in fact change and evolve as time went on, but here it gives the impression of a talent and a consciousness arriving fully formed. It’s easy to see why this debut, published when he was twenty-four years old, so quickly flash-fried his reputation into that of a writer to watch.
Set in 1962 among the Bronx housing projects where Price grew up, the book follows the titular Wanderers, a group of teenage Bronx gang members named after the 1961 Dion song “The Wanderer,” through a series of bumbling encounters with grown-ups, girls and rival gangs. The boys’ experiences are often harsh and painful, physically (many of the book’s gangs wield car aerials as weapons, and there are several mentions of what those things can do to a person’s face) and/or emotionally (the father figures involved are usually neglectful if not outright sadistically abusive). The explicitness of the book’s violence (and its sex, and its language, etc.) seem to have led some to view it as a searing exposé of the milieu it depicts; the Los Angeles Free Press, according to a blurb on the back of my copy, called it a unique portrait of “[t]he true realities of urban slum life.” But to view it as a work of cautionary journalism is to miss a few important points: First, that Price never intended it to represent the literal reality of his childhood (more on that later), and, second, that it’s a comedy through and through. A dark comedy, but a very funny one.
Some of Price’s later works would involve comedians–characters who crack jokes professionally or as a nervous verbal tic. There are no such characters in The Wanderers, unless you count the boys’ back-and-forth “yo’ momma” duels as “comedy,” but the story and prose more than pick up the slack. The book is just so densely funny, and it’s funny in so many different ways. There are absurd turns of phrase, like when one Wanderer’s aunt is introduced as “a heavily made up grizzly bear.” There are straight-up insult comic put-downs, like when another boy’s girlfriend is described as “the only student in the city who didn’t know what office Mayor Wagner held in city government.” There are elaborate fantasy sequences, like that same boy’s nightmare about the black kids in his neighborhood cooking him in a cauldron to Voodoo drums while the Asian kids look on in Fu Manchu outfits; it’s like a dream Bart would have if The Simpsons had been on premium cable.
There are even slapstick sequences so cinematically visual that they barely even register in prose, like when another guy slips and runs into a fence while trying to catch a football, “the football hitting the same spot on the fence a second later.” And there are subtler moments that are more quietly funny but no less effective, like when a group of Wanderers–Eugene, Joey, Richie and Buddy–exchange a somber handshake greeting with their friend Perry after his mother’s funeral: “They had never shaken hands with each other before, and in his nervousness Joey shook hands with Eugene.”
That moment in particular highlights the root of most of the book’s humor, which is that despite the grown-up gravity of the issues the Wanderers are confronted with–violence, death, racism, marriage, parenthood–they are, fundamentally, still kids. And, like many great comedies, the book uses the humor inherent in that premise to disguise an emotional through line that many readers may not notice until they’re already under its sway.
For a while, The Wanderers does not feel like a book that’s going to have much of a dramatic build. The first chapter started out as a stand-alone short story, and plenty of other chapters feel even more self-contained than it does; for most of my first reading, I assumed the book was more a collection of loosely connected episodes that happen to take place in the same world than a full-fledged novel. That’s why I was so surprised when I got to the poignant climax at the end of the second-to-last chapter and found myself heartbroken, totally wrecked on the characters’ behalf. I’d really come to care about them, and I hadn’t realized it until that moment.
Reading the book a second time for this blog made the build-up to that climactic scene a little more obvious. For one thing, I re-read The Wanderers immediately after reading Hubert Selby, Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, which Price often cites as his biggest literary inspiration, and while the Wanderers are highly flawed–naive, racist and prone to violence–they’re teddy bears next to the misanthropic horror shows of Selby’s book. They’re loyal to each other, despite their constant ball-busting, and they also care about their girlfriends to an extent that totally belies the lyrics to the song they’ve named themselves after:
Oh, I’m the type of guy who will never settle down,
Where a pretty girls are, a well you know that I’m aroun’
I a kiss ’em an I love ’em Cause to me they’re all the same
I a squeeze ’em and I hug ’em, they don’t even know my name
They call me the Wanderer, yeah the Wanderer
I roam aroun’ aroun’ aroun’
They’d love to think of themselves as that kind of love-’em-and-leave-’em player, but there’s not a single one who’s actually hard-hearted enough to behave that way. Richie pressures his girlfriend to have sex but breaks down when she starts to cry: “Something in [him] folded like a flower.” Buddy tries to engage in a repulsive game of street harassment called “elbow titting” (you figure it out) but ends up falling head-over-heels for a would-be victim. Even Eugene, the group’s resident Don Juan, drifts from girl to girl not because he prefers it that way but because he’s afraid of staying with any of them long enough for them to find out that his erection points down instead of up.
But the even greater irony in the “Wanderer” lyrics is that, despite all the talk of roaming “aroun’ aroun’ aroun’,” the boys’ greatest challenge is leaving behind the world they know and their friends within that world. That’s the common thread running through many of the book’s seemingly unconnected plotlines: Buddy growing closer to his girlfriend Despie, Perry dealing with the loss of his mother, Joey needing to escape from his abusive father, etc. The thematic unity of those stories isn’t immediately apparent, though, because they’re mixed in with vignettes that are genuinely tangential to the main plot, like the disturbing feud between two little kids in Chapter 4, “The Roof,” or the bowling-based revenge tale of Chapter 10, “The Hustlers.” And yeah, you could take out all the material that isn’t absolutely essential to the narrative if you wanted to pare the book down from an already lean 239 pages to the length of a tight novella. But why would you? As Louis CK has said about the idiosyncratic nature of his TV show, “It’s like certain kinds of food: You like them to be chunky and irregular. [If you] just keep puréeing and puréeing till it’s perfect, [then] who the fuck wants it?”
So again, it’s not hard to see why The Wanderers so quickly established Price’s reputation as a formidable writer. However, it also established a persona of him as a jive-talking street tough from the school of hard knocks, a role which he eventually grew uncomfortable playing. As he describes in this 1981 New York Times article, he’d been exaggerating his Bronx roots since his undergrad years at Cornell:
Ever since the day I moved into the freshman dorms in Ithaca, I had been coming on with twice as heavy a Bronx accent as I ever had back home. I acted twice as streety. Half the school was from affluent New York suburbs or, even worse, the Midwest, and I did it to preserve myself in much the same way a Southerner would come on twice as Dixie in New York.
I had been telling romantic tales of the Bronx to all my roomies from Terre Haute or Park Avenue, half booshwah at least, but from this desperate apocrypha came the beginnings of my story.
So The Wanderers is based in reality, but it’s reality partially heightened into a campfire tall tale. That probably explains why Price was a fan of the book’s somewhat cartoonish 1979 film adaptation. The assumptions some made about the story’s authenticity, on the other hand, might explain why his later work moved towards a relatively subdued, realistic style. He’d never write anything quite like The Wanderers again, but he didn’t need to. He got it right the first time around.
A few more notes:
• “Big Playground,” the short story which became the first chapter of The Wanderers, ran in the Autumn, 1972 issue of the literary magazine Antaeus. It was the first piece Price ever had published. Little of it was changed in the transition to book form, except that the story ends with the arrival of the Lester Avenue gang and doesn’t include the following scenes involving Dougie, leaving the graffiti whodunit unsolved. Apart from that there were only minor changes in phrasing, characters’ names, etc. The book did consistently tone down the stylization of the dialogue: “[H]ow about dem Lester Avenoo guys” became “[H]ow about them Lester Avenue guys,” for example.
• The Wanderers definitely rode the ’70s wave of ’50s and ’60s nostalgia. Rolling Stone (again, according to the blurb on my copy of the book; I can’t find the actual article) apparently called it “[t]he flip side of American Graffiti” (my favorite movie), a particularly appropriate comparison given that both book and film were released in 1974 but set in 1962. The book’s graphic violence and sex seem to mark it as a counterpoint, but the two works’ similarities run deeper than their differences.
• Speaking of 1962, the book’s timeline seems a little screwed up: Richie’s girlfriend’s homework in the first chapter seems to be dated “9/12/62,” but the wedding invitations in the second-to-last chapter set the ceremony’s date as “JUNE 1, 1962.” Is that backwards, or am I missing something? (In “Big Playground” the homework is dated 5/12/62, for whatever that’s worth.)
• The New York Times review of The Wanderers was written by none other than Price’s literary hero, Hubert Selby, Jr., who called the book “superbly written” and said Price “has the empathy and objectivity of a true artist.” For a young writer, that’s got to feel good.
Next week: Price spends some more time in the housing projects of the Bronx with his 1976 sophomore novel Bloodbrothers.