Richard Price’s novels can be roughly divided into three phases. The first phase includes 1974’s The Wanderers and 1976’s Bloodbrothers, semi-autobiographical tales of teenage Italians growing up in the Bronx. The most recent phase, made up of 1992’s Clockers and everything he’s put out since then, tends to focus on interactions between cops and the residents of impoverished urban black communities. You might expect the middle phase, encompassing 1978’s Ladies’ Man and 1983’s The Breaks, to function as some kind of transition between the other two, but it’s actually the opposite. Phases 1 and 3 at least share third-person narration and an interest in urban violence, but Phase 2 shifts away from both of those qualities, adopting a first-person perspective and a lighter tone even more overtly farcical than that of The Wanderers. And while I love Clockers and the novels that followed it, I kind of wish Phase 2 had lasted longer, because Richard Price’s comedies are funny as hell.
Ostensibly, Ladies’ Man (not to be confused with The Ladies Man, no relation) is about 30-year-old Kenny Becker’s post-breakup explorations of New York City’s sexual underbelly, from singles bars to Times Square bordellos to apocalyptically decadent gay clubs. Price started out exploring some of those milieus as research for a Penthouse assignment but then changed his mind, bought his articles back from the magazine and expanded the material into this book. (Amusingly, Kenny himself at one point tries to use “I’m writing an article for Playboy on sex” as a pick-up line.)
But the sexual underbelly stuff doesn’t really begin in earnest until about two-thirds of the way through the book, with the preceding chapters focusing on Kenny’s torturous breakup with his girlfriend La Donna, his dead-end job as a door-to-door salesman and his reunion with a couple of old high school buddies. So this is really just a book about a lonely, directionless neurotic bumbling through his daily life. If that subject matter sounds kind of sad, it is. But it’s also the grist for most stand-up routines.
Unlike Peter Keller, protagonist of The Breaks, Kenny isn’t actually an aspiring comedian, but he’s enough of a joker that his friends have nicknamed him “Kenny the Riffer.” And indeed, a big part of what makes Ladies’ Man work is the wry commentary threaded through Kenny/Price’s narration. La Donna’s nose is “broad but upturned like Hitler intended.” Kenny makes major life changes “with the grace and finesse of a butcher hacking up a mastodon.” A war movie Kenny watches is “two hours of soldiers confronting their fears of death. Many of them resolved the fear by dying.”
Like some of the best comedians, though, Price gets his biggest laughs from real (or, at least, real-feeling) incidents so self-apparently absurd and precisely described that they require no embellishment. As a comedian myself, my favorite such sequence has to be Kenny and La Donna’s trip to a local open mic (La Donna’s an aspiring singer and Kenny’s there to support her). The place is filled with a rogue’s gallery of godawful comics, including a manic hack who calls himself Chuck Steak, a hulking creep with the killer opening line “Wow, you Jews are wild, man,” and a shitty MC whom Kenny dismisses with one of the best put-downs I’ve ever heard: “Life would go on without him.” I can tell you from experience that none of the desperation and insanity in this scene is exaggerated.
Another highlight is the scene in which Kenny sits down to watch a late-night call-in swapline show on local TV. Emotionally fragile from his recent split with La Donna, Kenny gets sucked into the plight of a caller who claims to be suicidal, and soon, in classic Price fashion, everything’s in motion: The suicidal caller’s state of mind, the attitude of other callers towards her, Kenny’s own feelings about the show’s meek-tempered host–it’s all vacillating back and forth wildly until Kenny is literally bouncing off the walls.
And I think that’s what Price’s writing really captures about life–its inherent chaos. The characters never get the dignity of being alone with their problems or their plans; there’s always some inconvenient detail from the outside world creeping in. That’s why an emotional sidewalk confrontation between Kenny and La Donna has to get interrupted by someone “slow and elderly” walking by, and why Kenny’s rousing motivational speech to a potential conquest has to immediately get undercut by a thin-stemmed glass breaking in his hand. It can be funny or tragic or both, but in Price’s stories, the world always refuses to sit still.
The sex in Ladies’ Man very much fits that template, even if it doesn’t really come into play until late in the book. The allure of the act is always undercut by some distracting detail of the context in which it takes place, or just by unexpected physical grossness, as when a prostitute calmly pauses to spit out post-root-canal blood in the middle of giving Kenny a blow job. This is hardly the only Price novel to feature absurdly un-sexy sex–think Eugene Caputo’s crooked erection in The Wanderers or Marie’s laundry room pick-up in Bloodbrothers–but it’s obviously the most extreme example.
Anyway, Price seems to have cruised through the writing of this book as breezily as I cruised through the reading of it; he claims in this 1978 radio interview that he wrote a 600-page draft in three weeks and more or less says he doesn’t get writer’s block. I imagine these statements sent other writers into fits of envy, and they seem to have jinxed Price, as the writing of his next book would turn into a frustrating five-year slog.
A few other notes:
• “Talk. Talk, talk, talk,” Kenny says early on, in the Richard Price equivalent of Shakespeare’s “Words, words, words.”
• Kenny’s description of his parents’ toxic way of expressing “love” sounds like a milder version of how Marie treated Albert in Bloodbrothers.
• Price’s author bio in the first edition of this book says he “has authored a play, Murphy.” I can’t find any more information about that project; don’t know if it was ever staged or not.