Richard Price’s The Wanderers is an open-eyed vision of the dark night of the American dream. Set in the Bronx during the 1960’s, the book focuses on a teenage gang and its various experiences of sex, violence, racism, and domestic abuse. The language is direct and steers clear of grandiose statements. Price writes about these adolescents like he knows where they’ve been, like he’s just stepped out of the places and potholes of their childhood. And although his primary focus is on ‘The Wanderers’, the eponymous youth gang, his peripheral vision is so sharp it allows him to cast a critical eye over the greater American urban landscape.
There is immediate violence. We are drawn into the fierce territorial disputes that govern gang life, even as the tone borders on a parody of that infamous musical West Side Story. Again and again, Price is quick to remind us that the stuff this novel is made of is violence, not irritating sing-alongs. A local football match soon descends into anarchy when the protagonists rise to the challenge of the Ducky Boys, an Irish gang whose members wouldn’t reach five feet if they stood on their razors. But long before these boys have reached manhood, physical confrontation is the means by which masculinity is measured. Price is as unafraid as his cast when it comes to making this point: to be a man is to fight for the glory of the tribalistic gangs. Hence, even though the novel avoids the current trend towards the visceral, it leaves no room for ambiguity about life in the projects.
Yet Price anchors his novel in a ground so common we’ve all been to it. As the Wanderers’ awkward sexual encounters capture the insecurity and self-consciousness of adolescence, Price’s writing is reminiscent of Ed McBain, not least his blend of humorous levity and human drama. Price weaves the burgeoning sexuality of youth into the city’s amorphous community of apartment blocks, and so the panicked bravado of these fumbling encounters not only throws the brutal violence of their childish inexperience into sharp relief. It also shows how precariously we all straddle that gap between Innocence and Fall.
The Wanderers is yet another example of crime writing that refuses to exhaust its potential and our patience with stereotypes. The main protagonists may be unashamedly violent, but they are also full of shame and fear. Written in 1974, the novel paints an image of a city that is not quite sure how to negotiate the various ethnic groups along the self-destructive path that often leads through contemporary America. While not as strong as in his later work, notably Clockers and Lush Life, Price demonstrates with considerable grace his understanding of the society he lives in and his passion for its people.