Saturday, May 8, 2021

The Wanderers by Richard Price

The youth gang crime subgenre is not one that I'm usually interested in. My first glimpse of it was as a young kid reading the cautionary tale/disguised religious tract/testimonial The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson depicting the life and conversion of a gang member named Nicky Cruz. If decades old memory serves, it was just salacious enough to keep the interest while having a very heavy handed last act about converting to Christianity. At some point in school I read The Outsiders by SE Hinton, but I remember absolutely nothing about it other than the term "greaser" and that it was about rival youth gangs getting into racially motivated trouble. The Wanderers is a deliberately profane entry in that genre, one that I mostly enjoyed.

A college professor recommended Price's Lush Life to me back when it came out because I had praised Elmore Leonard's dialog, and the professor said Price's was as good. Lush Life is a great crime novel, and Price's ear for dialog was not exaggerated. I also read Samaritan around that time, and enjoyed it as well, if not quite as much. Later, when I realized that Price, along with Lehane and Pelecanos, was part of the writing room for The Wire, and I picked up several of his books, including this, his debut, which have sat on the shelf unread for years. 

It seems that at least part of Price's point in this book is to de-sanitize the youth gang genre (based on my limited exposure to it). The racism that drives a lot of the gang activity is on full display. The coming of age sexual experiences are borderline pornographic. This is clearly an attempt at portraying the time and characters honestly, but will likely put some readers off. But if you have the stomach for that, it is an incredibly affecting work about some kids growing up in a very difficult situations.

The book has an undeniable energy. The dialog is very good. There are several absolutely chilling sections. I didn't like this as well as Lush Life or Samaritan, but, especially considering it was his first novel and published when he was 24, it's very impressive. 

Recommended (with a heavy content warning), but read Lush Life first. 

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