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'The Breaks': The Price of Hindsight

Richard Price's orphaned 1983 comic novel The Breaks finally returns to print, as painfully funny as ever, like an extended banana peel slide in slow motion.

The Breaks

Publisher: Picador
Length: 469 pages
Author: Richard Price
Price: $16.00
Format: Trade paperback
Publication date: 2011-07

Like savvy musicians with their mastertapes, best-selling writers no longer sell their words in perpetuity; instead they lease them to paperback publishers for mutually agreed-upon amounts of time, after which they lease them all over again to imprints that may show them more cash, or love. It's why work by popular authors like Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane periodically, and briefly, go out of print, only to be relaunched in new editions with new covers.

Sometimes, though, authors are in no particular hurry to return their books to shelves. Maybe they don't want old books competing for attention with new ones, or they're just waiting for interest to rebuild, perhaps behind a new book or movie adaptation. Then, there's the father or mother reluctant to re-expose a problem child to light, like Richard Price, whose fourth novel, 1983's The Breaks, has after more than a decade of absence, recently been reissued by Picador.

In various interviews, Price has seemed to be somewhat embarrassed by The Breaks, along with 1978's The Ladies' Man (also newly available from Picador), Yet he recalls his 1974 debut The Wanderers, published when he was but 23 and mythologized the passing of Bronx greaser culture, and 1976's Bloodbrothers, with begrudging affection; perhaps it's because those were both made into films.

The Breaks was written before Price had established himself as a screenwriter with a golden ear for dialogue, with scripts for The Color of Money and Sea of Love. But The Breaks did not lend itself to Hollywood narrative, being one of those stories that makes you simultaneously flinch and laugh. It's a dark, realist comedy, and while all of Price's books -- including his best novel, the sprawling yet succinct Freedomland -- have no shortage of humor, The Breaks is basically an extended banana peel slide in slow motion, Movie producers are notoriously wary of downhill rides unless the protagonist rallies to trump all demons and discover his True Self. The best The Breaks' Peter Keller is able to do is pick himself up and start all over. The only lessons learned are pretty obvious: Blaming yourself doesn't help, you have to keep rolling that big ol' rock up the hill.

Still, of all of Price's characters. from the bedraggled, overworked Jersey cops of Clockers and Freedomland to the entrepreneur-interrupted of his last novel Lush Life, Peter is at once the most recognizable and the most frustrating. Having graduated from upstate New York's Simon Straight College in 1971, he finds himself in a kind of Jewish purgatory. Stranded on the waiting list for Columbia Law, he's forced to move back into his childhood room in a Yonkers apartment, living with his salt-o-the earth dad Lou and his new step-mother Vy who, he notices, goes to a beauty parlor every other day yet always comes out looking worse for the experience.

Armed only with his English honors citation, Peter gets a commission job with American Communicators, a telephone marketing outfit in Manhattan, where he is assigned cubicle 8E and the Power Plowers acount. His job is to cold-call potential customers for the Charles Atlas-like "iso-tensile body builder in a bar", while his co-workers across the asile shill for a local PBS fund-raiser.

Fortunately, Peter gets seated across from 8D, one James Madison, who has dispensed with the pre-recorded tapes of Julia Child and James Earl Jones he is supposed to use to get his marks to write checks, and is practicing his would-be profession of acting by imitating the famous voices himself, often to surreal conclusions. From there Peter descends to the Post Office, where he carves out his own version of going postal, which ends not in a shoot-out put in something far more demeaning.

The knock against The Breaks -- Price's own -- is that its anecdotal and desperately autobiographical was played out (Peter ends up as a lecturer to bored freshmen at his alma mater, proving that if you can go home again you shouldn't). When Price returned to fiction a decade later with Clockers he moved his game across the river to Jersey, which only seemed like a smaller canvas; in fact, he had hit on what New York Times book critic Michiku Kakutani recently called "billiard ball" fiction, in which one decision by one character ricochets and collides into a sweeping investigation of contemporary culture.

But if The Breaks is a young writers' cocoon, there's great joy in watching Price bust out of it, and listening to him hone the verbal dexterity and precise descriptiveness that makes his books -- not to mention his brilliant scripts for The Wire one of the all-time great social investigations in any medium -- spark and fire and, yes, entertain. To return to The Breaks, redelivered in a cover designed by the great Henry Sene Lee around a stunning Stephen Shames' photo from his Bronx Boys monograph (check it out at Light Box Time.com). Revisiting The Breaksis like re-racking the table, and watching the beginning of a whole new game.


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