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Acclaimed Novelist To Visit the JCC

Richard Price Lecture, Book Signing Oct. 14

On Thursday, Oct. 14, the Sid Jacobson JCC will host its Harvey & Phyllis Sandler Author Breakfast and Book Signing event, featuring one of the premier American novelists of the past three and a half decades.

Richard Price is the author of seven novels, including Clockers, Freedomland and Samaritan, plus such classics from the 1970s as The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers.

The event will last from 10:30 a.m. until noon. A book signing will follow Price’s presentation.

Price’s latest novel is Lush Life, a book set on the Lower East Side, but his talk will be about his career in general. A former professor of creative writing at Columbia University, Price is known for his writing on the HBO series, The Wire. He has also written numerous screenplays, including The Color of Money (1986) and Sea of Love (1989). But it was back in the 1970s that he first made his mark as a novelist, the art form that he will be remembered for.

Price is a native of The Bronx, the locale for his early fiction. A graduate of Bronx High School of Science, he later earned a BA degree at Cornell University and an MFA at Columbia. Price originally hoped to become an attorney specializing in labor relations, but during his undergraduate years, he caught the writing bug, a craft he would pursue in graduate school.

After Columbia, Price enrolled in Stanford University’s famous creative writing program. A short story he had written about teenage gang life in The Bronx caught the eye of an editor, who encouraged Price to do more writing on the same subject. During a year’s time at Stanford, Price wrote the manuscript for his first novel, The Wanderers, which was published in 1973 when Price was 24 years old. The Wanderers was a critical success, with the English novelist John Fowles declaring; “I haven’t read a better fictional account of the dark side of the American Dream in years.” In People, Price was pictured at a subway stop in The Bronx, which the article stated was only a “35 cent subway ride” from the novelist’s new home in Manhattan.

The Wanderers is a coming of age novel about five Italian-American teenagers experiencing their final year in high school while living in a Bronx housing project. The novel is set in the early 1960s and captures both the multi-ethnic flavor that once existed in that borough and the difficulties faced by working families living in a vast housing project. The Wanderers has remained a favorite for many of Price’s readers as it has spoken directly to a generation of New Yorkers, especially those who came of age in the late 1950s and the 1960s.

Price’s next three novels, Bloodbrothers (1976), Ladies’ Man (1978) and The Breaks (1983) concern young men trying to find their place in the world. In Bloodbrothers, Stony DeCoco has to choose between a profession he desires, that of a hospital therapist, and one that his father and uncle want for him, namely to follow in their footsteps as an electrician on construction projects. The Wanderers is set in the 1960s. Bloodbrothers updates life in The Bronx during the 1970s. Instead of a housing project, the DeCoco’s, like many middle class families, have now settled in Co-op City.

Ladies’ Man, meanwhile, is set in Manhattan as Kenny Becker, a native of The Bronx, finds himself in a Ray Milland-style lost week after his girlfriend, a failed nightclub singer, leaves him. Kenny is a door-to-door salesman who loves books and fancies himself as a high school English teacher, but he has a hard time making the transition to the adult world.

Ladies’ Man was published when Price was only 28 years old. Not since the heyday of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald had any American novelist gotten out of the gate so fast. Both The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers were made into movies. The former starred Ken Wahl of Wiseguy fame, while the latter was a successful vehicle for the young Richard Gere.

In The Breaks, Price continued on the same theme. Pete Keller, another Bronx native, makes a more successful transition from a college English teacher at an upstate university to a stand-up comic in Manhattan.

Following The Breaks, Price did not publish fiction for another decade. As noted, he started a new career as a Hollywood screenwriter. But fiction remained his main concern and starting in the early 1990s he published a new string of novels: Clockers (1992), Freedomland (1998), Samaritan (2003) and Lush Life (2008). Lush Life is set in Manhattan. However, with Clockers, Freedomland and Samaritan, Price had a new locale for his fiction, the mythical Dempsey, New Jersey. Price even referred to Dempsey as his “Yoknapatawpha County” in reference to the famous fictional locale of William Faulkner’s work. Still, for many of his readers, Price will always be identified with The Bronx. No one, before or since, has written so vividly about life in that borough, especially how it was lived in the 1960s and ’70s.

In Ladies’ Man, for instance, Kenny Becker is whiling away an evening listening to a radio talk show. One of the callers is a middle-aged woman from The Bronx. Kenny noted that his lady spoke with “such a thick Bronx accent” that he could tell not only what street she lived on, but what apartment building she lived in. Ladies’ Man also featured an especially arresting scene when Kenny and two of his high school buddies visit a park in their old neighborhood. In all, Price is likely to be identified with The Bronx in the way that other American novelists are identified with a particular place and time: Saul Bellow with Chicago, Raymond Chandler with Los Angeles, Wendell Berry with Henry County, Kentucky and Thomas Wolfe with Asheville, North Carolina.

The Oct. 14 author breakfast and book signing should be one of the most entertaining and enlivening ones the JCC has held. Price’s screenplays for both The Color of Money and Clockers (1995) were nominated for an Academy Award. For his literary efforts, Price, in 1999, received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature.

On the day of the event, the JCC will serve a continental breakfast and also provide free valet parking. Books are available for purchase at the Sid Jacobson JCC Front Desk in advance or the day of the event and there is a book signing to follow.

In addition to the Richard Price presentation, future events will feature the follow books and authors:

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

Thursday, Dec. 2

10:30 a.m.—noon

The 188th Crybaby Brigade by Joel Chasnoff

Thursday, March 24, 2011

10:30 a.m.—noon

The Three Weissmans of Westport by Cathleen Schine

Thursday, April 28, 2011

10:30 a.m. - noon

Fees are $140/nonmembers and $120 for a series of four

Author Breakfasts, including the Price event;  $80/nonmembers and $70 for any 2 different events; $50/nonmembers and $40 for a single Author Breakfast. Tickets can be purchased on the website www.sjjcc.org/ books or by calling 484-1545.

For more information, contact Elyse Ingber, Performance and Visual Arts director, 484-1545, ext. 144.