THE FIRST QUARTER of The Breaks, Richard Price's fourth novel, is terrific stuff: exuberant, breezy, self-mocking--and very funny. It is 1971; Peter Keller, a kid from Yonkers by way of the Bronx, has just graduated from Simon Straight College in upstate New York: "After three generations of teamsters, cabbies and mailmen, the Kellers had finally scored for a college graduate. I was the happy ending to our private little American Everyman play." He wants to be a lawyer, because that is what "too many uncles and aunts" have represented to him as the ultimate mark of making it: "I wanted to be successful, I wanted a house in the burbs complete with pipe rack and stand-up globe in the den; for me, for them, for me."
The only problem is that the law school he most wants to enter, Columbia, has turned him down and he is (for reasons not satisfactorily explained) too proud to matriculate at his second choice, St. John's. So he moves back into the apartment in Yonkers ("The last four years would be wiped out and I'd be sixteen all over again") with his father and stepmother, the latter being in his view an entirely unsatisfactory replacement for the mother who died when Peter was a fifth-grader:
"She was too heartbreaking and still. She tried too hard with me. Every day with her was like a first date. . . . She trembled, she yearned, she was childless. I couldn't imagine her going through childbirth and living. My mother was so big and yowly that apocrypha has it I had popped out of her like a piece of toast. My mother had been a walking tragedy too, but grand-opera style. She was a Hatpin Mary at the wrestling matches. She took me to monster movies and the Roller Derby. She ate entire roast chickens in the middle of the night. She made the walls vibrate. She cried watching game shows. We were both histrionic hambones: as a two- year-old I got hysterical at the noise of the stand-up vacuum one day, and she tossed it out our ground-floor window in the Bronx, screaming, 'Bad vacuum!' The scream, the crash and the waste of money had doubled my hysteria, but it was the thought that counted."
Peter has, as that passage suggests, a touch of the stand-up comic in him, a hint of Lenny Bruce and Shelley Berman and Mort Sahl, the hip Jewish comics of a previous generation. Indeed, being a nightclub comic is his deepest desire--his own variation upon the secret yearning that each of us hides beneath the more respectable, attainable aspirations that are the real work of our lives. Peter recognizes this: "A class clown does not a comic make. It was easy enough to wipe out a group of friends from the comfort of a familiar couch or under a street light on a spacy night, another thing to get up there on a stage, to do auditions, to disregard the diploma. I'd fold like a jackknife. Realism. Law School. Don't be a dropout."
But his rejection by Columbia makes him a dropout whether he wants to be one or not; soon thereafter, a job he briefly holds with a seedy telephone-solicitation firm exposes him to show-biz types who are picking up change between appearances. Insidiously, the thought of giving his dream a real fling comes to preoccupy him. Yet he can't work up the energy to take up the dare. Instead he sulks about his rejection, takes the law boards again but declines to reapply to Columbia, and makes himself a whiny, unpleasant presence in the apartment. Finally he takes a series of actions that force him "to leave this apartment that was no longer mine, and start my own life."
Unfortunately, he chooses to do so by returning to his college town of Buchanon, his rationale being that "at least if I headed upstate I would be in familiar surroundings." Peter Keller may be comfortable in Buchanon, but Richard Price is not. He is a novelist of the city, as his other books have made clear, and away from it he is in alien territory. As soon as Peter moves back into the womb of his old college town, The Breaks falls apart. Where the first quarter of the novel is brash and authentic, the final three-quarters are strained and unconvincing.
The first unlikely development is that Peter, 23 years old and possessed of no teaching experience whatever, is offered and accepts a job teaching a writing-class section at his old college. The second is that he falls in love with Kim Fonseca, a woman six years older than he, whose charms, though they are enough to set Peter's teeth rattling, are utterly invisible to the reader. The third is that he then becomes involved in a complicated relationship with Kim's husband, Tony, an English professor and minor short-story writer from whom she is separated. The fourth is that Peter and Tony make a surreptitious trip to New York in which each is given a glimpse, though not necessarily an accurate one, of his future. The fifth is that Peter returns to Buchanon, and to Kim, in a conclusion the predictability and sentimentality of which sit most uneasily at the end of a novel that wants to be raucous and irreverent.
No doubt we should be grateful, in a world of small favors, for the first 125 pages of The Breaks. But in the end they merely launch the novel on a note of high promise that it subsequently comes nowhere close to fulfilling. Richard Price has genuine gifts; his style is energetic, his eye for the minutiae of pop culture is keen, he swings to the jangling rhythms of city life. But once he takes Peter Keller away from the sidewalks of New York, he seems to have no idea what to do with him; the energy of his prose becomes merely exhusting, and the novel staggers in disarray to its resolution. Perhaps the truth is that Price himself is a stand-up-comic novelist, and that he should stick to what he does best.