The only other gang worth being scared of was the Fordham Baldies, who were so fucking insane that they shaved their heads so their hair wouldn't get in their eyes in a fight. They were older too. About eighteen on the average. The toughest guy in the Baldies was Terror, a huge cross-eyed monster who even beat up on his own gang when they weren't fighting anyone else. But even he knew better than to fuck with the puniest guy on Lester Avenue. They'd come down like vigilantes and tear up the whole Fordham area, and they'd go down like that night after night until Terror gave himself up. Then a kangaroo court in some basement and even money Terror would be found in the trunk of a deserted car out in Hunt's Point the next week. (3)1
We're in a world borne of neighbourhood rumour, the sort of thing a twelve-year-old might have heard, partially experienced, and partially believed. Apt detail and gritty realism coexist with comic-book flourishes and an urban legend sheen. The early sixties have come to the Bronx. The Jewish/Italian/Irish/Black neighbourhoods will soon welcome newer waves of settlers, though probably with a Bronx Cheer. The greaser gangs are on their way out; more dangerous sorts would replace them. Meanwhile, the Wanderers, a bunch of goombas whose ages, over the course of the novel, range from fifteen to seventeen, rule their particular turf or, at least, try to convince themselves they do.
Richard Price would go on to write other novels and numerous articles and screenplays. Many people know him from his debut, a flawed but often brilliant book published in 1974, when he was twenty-four years old.
The Wanderers has a kind of story arc, but its chapters consist of meandering, loosely connected tales. The tone and level of realism roam around. A conflict between teen gangs drags in the elementary-school kids. Richie Gennaro can't get laid, so his adult mentor sends him to a whore. Buddy Borsalino falls in love while trying to cop a feel and ends up married. A sociopathic ten-year-old orchestrates the death of his best friend. One of the toughest gangs meets their match in a trickster military recruiter. Fractured families cast long shadows; Joey finally smashes a bottle over his abusive father's head. A mysterious, seemingly mute gang appear and disappear, leaving death in its wake. A boy walks in on his girlfriend being raped by an armed man and doesn't know how to react. The world is changing. By the end of the novel (which chronicles the events of roughly a year), most of the boys will start to face that fact. Richie learns that his buddy has joined the Marines and he sits back on a park bench and claps "his hands to his ears" to keep out the noise of "millions of screaming ten-year-old maniacs" (239). He's really hearing the sound of the future.
Price finds poetry in realistic, casually racist, and frequently filthy dialogue. The character's comments elicit both laughs and pity. I never get the sense he wants to elevate or (particularly) condemn these characters. He simply wants to present the attitudes he encountered, growing up in a particular place and time. We certainly see the consequences of their attitudes played out in these pages.
Price writes earnestly, but the stories do not always connect. Characters wander in and out of his pages, sometimes without adequate payoff. They aren't always clearly delineated. While the dialogue can be brilliant, a few of the stories contain textbook examples of why said bookisms usually fail. The Wanderers is, in short, a first novel, but its moments of brilliance make it worth reading.
The book, with is tough setting and witty repartee, lent itself perfectly to a movie, especially in the 1970s, which had grown rather fond of the greasers and thugs of the previous generation.
As with many cult classics, this 1979 film doesn't succeed in spite of its flaws and oddities but, in part, because of them. The meandering, mixed narrative create the sense we're peering into some neighbourhood's life and dreams or, perhaps, watching the entire run of some implausible, brilliant, uneven tv series, condensed to two hours.
Most of the book's plot points and memorable lines remain, scrambled and recontextualized. Characters are eliminated or combined. The writers weave the original into something approximating a coherent plot. Things experienced by younger kids in the novel occur in the film to older ones, played by even older actors. The effect can be a little disorienting, but it suits the wandering tone. We begin with a make-out session that ends abruptly. Next we experience fleeing Wanderers and a fight scene that might have occurred in a old Western, but for the clothing, buildings, and Dead End Kids argot. We move to the boys strutting, accompanied by Rock and Roll. Some elements recall perfectly the feel of actual adolescence. Others remain in some fantastic netherworld. The feared Ducky Boys of Lester Avenue, bizarre in the book, grow stranger onscreen. Silent creatures from a low-budget horror movie, they live in a neighbourhood perpetually fogged over and filled with menacing ambient sounds. They provide a common enemy over which rival gangs can bond, and a measure against which other thugs seem likeable.
The boys deliver witty dialogue, make racist and sexist remarks, and kid each other with macho jabs at once homophobic and homoerotic. The film undercuts these more explicitly than the book. Certain events will result in a new understanding among the races, one perfectly tailored for a Hollywood movie. Nina (Karen Allen) will expressly challenge the boys' sexism with a problematic version of female empowerment. The film does not shy away from Price's hints that two of the Wanderers might have more than a friendly attraction to each other—though the script and Phil Kaufman's direction tiptoe gingerly here. I missed the implication entirely the first time around.
Yeah, part of the love I bear this movie comes from that first time around. I grew up in a working class, predominantly Italian neighbourhood. The kids loved this movie. It was some version of our world, amped up with Hollywood-style gangs and backdated to an era the media kept telling us was far cooler than our own. Despite the limitations to their toughness—- we first see them running from danger-- we knew instantly the Wanderers would have eaten Grease's T-Birds for breakfast We laughed frequently, and I still do, when I see this movie. It lightens the novel's darkness and emphasizes the humour. This Wanderers doesn't lack for tragic twists, but nothing happens to equal the novel's most brutal and disturbing moments.
Kaufman, like Price, finds poetry in the the low-rise, low-rent landscape. The film features some beautiful shots, and should never be watched save in widescreen format. A soundtrack as perfect (if not as crowded) as American Graffiti's accompanies the scenes.
The acting, however, varies in quality. Some members of the cast posture more than they perform. Others prove themselves. The film develops a touching and strange relationship between the monstrous Terror and his very young, somewhat androgynous girlfriend, Pee Wee. Erland Van Lidth, actor and opera singer, has memorable presence, but the tiny Linda Manz is outstanding. Eighteen when she made the movie, her character seems about thirteen or fourteen, wise beyond her years, and aware her toughness is partially a show.
By setting the film in '63, Kaufman and company incorporate the assassination of Kennedy,2 a performance by Bob Dylan, and developments in Southeast Asia. The film thus heightens one of the novel's themes: the wider world, like that of its adolescent heroes, will be changing forever. Richie Gennaro follows Nina into a club, and realizes how out of place his style has become. His future father-in-law, Chubby Galasso, throws him an outsized Hawaiian shirt. "You'll grow into it," he says.
Both incarnations of The Wanderers pay off, despite some seriously uneven material. The book's better moments will stay with you longer. The movie is more fun.
Directed by Phil Kaufman
Written by Phil and Rose Kaufman, from the book by Richard Price.
Ken Wahl as Richie Gennaro
Tony Ganios as Perry
John Friedrich as Joey
Toni Kalem as Despie Galasso
Jim Youngs as Buddy
Tony Munafo as Tony
Alan Rosenberg as Turkey
Linda Manz as Peewee
Erland Van Lidth as Terror
William Andrews as Emilio
Karen Allen as Nina
Dolph Sweet as Chubby Galasso
Michael Wright as Clinton
Dion Albanese as Teddy Wong
Sam Williams as Roger
Alan Braunstein as Ducky Boy Leader
Olympia Dukakis as Joey's Mom
Burtt Harris as Marine Recruiter
Neal Adams did original artwork used in the film.
1. Many of the film's gangs actually existed (by name) in the Bronx, though not necessarily at the same time, and the fictional versions do not necessarily correspond to their real-life counterparts. The real-life Fordham Baldies did not shave their heads. The Ducky Boys, reportedly, were just another local gang, and not the nearly-supernatural predators depicted on the page and screen.
2. The director, in fact, gives to Richie Gennaro his own real-life experience of learning about the assassination from a store-window television set, watched by a shocked and weeping crowd.