The Wanderers, 1974
This is Price’s debut, published when he was 24, and it is a powerhouse, impossible not to devour like a stoned teenager on a midnight run to White Castle. The story revolves around a gang of white kids in the north Bronx, the ones whose parents didn’t make it to the burbs, as they confront the end of adolescence and the beginning of they haven’t got a clue what. They’re obsessed with sex, pop music, bowling, and beating the living shit out of anyone who is not of their tribe. The coming-of-age theme is a well-trod standard, but Price breathes fire into it. The book is raunchy, violent, tender, cruel, and laugh-your-ass-off funny. In contrast to the heavily plotted big opera of his later work—Clockers, Freedomland, Samaritan—this is more like jazz, overflowing with ingenious, effortless riffs.
If you were thinking you needed a refresher course in racial epithets, this is your book. Price’s characters spew them on every page, as they compete for the diminishing rewards of the Bronx, circa 1975. There are two sets of brothers here: Tommy and Chubby, union electricians and prodigious pussy hounds, never mind their wives; and Tommy’s sons, Stony, just coming out of high school, and 8-year-old Albert. The setting is Co-op City, a.k.a. the catch basin of white flight from the borough. Price intensifies the themes of The Wanderers—the end of adolescent freedom, the cruelty of parents who despise what they’ve become and take it out on their kids, the paralyzing fear that comes with choosing a future among meager options. Most of all, it’s a book about bonding between men—how much they need it and how helpless they are at doing it.
Ladies’ Man, 1978
Departing from the ensemble approach, Price goes solo, telling this one from the view of Kenny Becker, a thirtyish wisecracker who hawks housewares door-to-door in pre-yuppie Manhattan. This is more of a cult book, as it lacks the emotional range and complexity of his first two novels—only so many readers will stay with a story in which the narrator’s penis plays a major supporting role. “Out of all the artichoke layers of bullshit that made up my life,” Kenny says, “the only thing that never switched up on me was my dick.” For fans, though, Price delivers his most mordant humor and something of a moral: This is where life can lead if you blindly pursue your needs without stopping to think about what you want. Or in other words, don’t be a dick.