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Richard Price Biography

york university black dempsy

Nationality: American. Born: New York, 1949. Education: Cornell University, B.S. 1971; Columbia University, graduate study, 1972-74, M.F.A. 1976; Stanford University, further graduate study, 1973. Career: Lecturer in English as a second language, Hostos Community College, 1973; lecturer in urban affairs, New York University, 1973; lecturer in creative writing, State University of New York at Stony Brook, beginning 1974, New York University, 1974 and 1977, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1976, Hofstra University, 1978-79, and Yale University, 1980; screenwriter, actor, and producer. Lives in the Bronx, New York. Awards: Playboy Magazine Nonfiction Award, 1979. Agent: Brandt & Brandt, 1501 Broadway, New York, New York 10036, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Wanderers. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Bloodbrothers. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

Ladies' Man. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

The Breaks. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1983.

Clockers. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Freedomland. New York, Broadway Books, 1998.

Plays

Screenplays:

Streets of Gold, 1986; The Color of Money, Buena VistaPictures, 1986; Bad (for Michael Jackson music video), 1987; Rain Man (uncredited), United Artists, 1988; Sea of Love, Universal Pictures, 1989; New York Stories ("Life Lessons" segment), Buena Vista Pictures, 1989; Night and the City, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1992; 3 Screenplays, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1993; Mad Dog and Glory, Universal Pictures, 1993; Kiss of Death, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1995; Clockers (with Spike Lee), Universal Pictures, 1995; Money Train (uncredited), Columbia Pictures, 1995; Ransom, Buena Vista Pictures, 1996; Shaft (and story), Paramount Pictures, 2000.

Other

Introduction and interview, Men in the Cities, 1979-1982, by Robert Longo. New York, Abrams, 1986.

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Critical Studies:

Interview (sound recording), with Kay Bonetti, Columbia, Missouri, American Audio Prose Library, 1982; Richard Price, Novelist (sound recording), Washington, D.C., National Public Radio, 1986.

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Richard Price is a late-twentieth-century hybrid of Charles Dickens and Theodore Dreiser. His protagonists know both the destitution of David Copperfield and the craftiness of Sister Carrie. We may want to throw a little Upton Sinclair in the mix, too; Price's description of the risks and exploitation of the street drug dealer's life evoke comparisons to The Jungle 's slaughterhouse. Price's distinct trademark is his ear for street talk. He ably follows its changing lexicon, rhythms, and discourse communities in each of his novels, set in various New York City-area urban neighborhoods from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Price published The Wanderers when he was only twenty-four. This coming-of-age novel takes place in the multi-ethnic Bronx of the early-1960s. The Wanderers are a tight-knit group of Italian-American high school buddies, trying to survive parental abuse, teen pregnancy, and threats from rival gangs. They are an oxymoronic blend of tough and sensitive, which Price pulls off by avoiding sentimentality. At first Price's "protagonist" is collective. Richie, Joey, Eugene, Buddy, and Perry take on the threats of their ethically splintered high school together: the blacks, the all-Chinese gang, the mute Irish maniacs. The boys are gradually individualized by their personal plights; they become fathers, soldiers, desperados, on the road alone to success, failure, or the purgatory of the blue-collar working man's life.

Bloodbrothers ' singular protagonist, eighteen-year-old Stony De Coco, is trying to decide what to do with his life. He can join the family construction business, work as a hospital aid with children, or go to college. His choices reflect three conflicting impulses: stay with the violent, gritty, hatred-ridden world he knows best; turn soft, helpful, "feminine" at the hospital, or attempt class mobility through higher education. Again Price lays claim to this proletariat coming-of-age story through the tough talk and brutality of street and home. At times Price relies too heavily on these devices for authenticity and emotional impact; the novel lacks more understated moments of character development.

In Ladies' Man, Price pulls away from the mean streets, a move that allows him to turn to other, more subtle means of characterization. Thirty-year-old Kenny Becker has made it out of the Bronx to become a household sprays salesman in Manhattan. His live-in girlfriend has just left him, and he's compelled to recapture the ruffian existence of his gang-member youth. The arena, though, is now the vacuous 1970s swinging singles scene. This scenario is far more bourgeois than those in Price's first two novels, yet Becker's lonely, wandering bachelor life is no less vividly portrayed than the tumultuous high school halls of The Wanderers. Furthermore, the relative quietude of a salesman's bachelorhood allows Price to concentrate on character rather than chaos. Price proves himself here to be more than a one-trick pony.

The Breaks is another study of a working-class youth trying to be upwardly mobile. Peter Keller has just graduated from college, the first of his family to do so. After being wait-listed at law school, he moves back home to Yonkers and works meaningless jobs that do little but distance him from his goal of becoming an attorney. He ends up moving back to his college town to teach English, where he contemplates another future vision of himself: becoming an actor and stand-up comedian. Peter is even more confused about his chance at class mobility than Stony was in Bloodbrothers. Peter got "the break" of going to college, the chance to live out the classic dream of having a better life than one's parents did. Though college initially offers him the freedom to "be himself"—happy and unselfconscious—for the first time in his life, after graduation Peter finds he can't quite leave home. While living with his father in Yonkers, he suffers Oedipal longings for his stepmother. Once he leaves, he reinscribes this triangle onto an older colleague and his wife.

Price returns to the mean streets in Clockers, but character development is not sacrificed to the shock of the violence-ridden, illegal drug underworld setting. Strike, a black crack dealer, and Rocco, a white homicide cop, co-narrate the novel. Strike's brother, Victor, a young father working himself to the bone at two low-wage jobs, turns himself in for killing another neighborhood dealer. Rocco becomes obsessed with Strike and Victor, believing Victor is taking the rap for his brother's crime. Strike is indeed the bad boy, working for the neighborhood drug lord, luring a pre-teen boy into the racket with new sneakers, books, and adult male attention. But Strike is also a tortured soul with a stutter and a bleeding ulcer he treats by downing bottles of vanilla Yoo-Hoo. Rocco's late-career quest to nail the "right brother," we learn, is really about his yearning for moral order in the drug-and crime-torn world of his hometown of Dempsy, New Jersey. Strike, ironically, harbors the same desire, refusing to believe his do-good brother could kill. Clockers is a brilliant portrayal of the black inner city, Strike and Victor the two faces of a post-Civil Rights era "Native Son."

In Freedomland, the insular chaos of Dempsy becomes ground zero in a clash of racist mythologies. A young white woman tells the Dempsy police she was carjacked by a black man outside a housing project, her four-year-old son in the backseat. Racial tensions erupt between Dempsy and the adjacent, mostly white community, Gannon, and the media descends. The plot is based on the true story of Susan Smith, a white woman in South Carolina who drowned her two children, then told the world a black man had kidnapped them. Again Price uses blackness and whiteness as ironic mirrors for one another. The white mother, Brenda Martin, is exhausted and fragile and raising her son on her own, bearing the "single mother" moniker so many of her black neighbors are demonized for, yet she easily becomes a media victim-darling. The white cops of Gannon physically reinforce the black-white divide by sealing off and invading Dempsy. Meanwhile, black Dempsy detective Lorenzo Council ostensibly joins in this scouring of the mean streets, yet quietly explores Brenda Martin's own potential role in the crime. He is joined in his suspicions by Jesse Haus, a newspaper reporter from Dempsy's evening paper, who befriends Brenda as she investigates the woman's unstable world.

Lisa A. Phillips

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