Ladies’ Man by Richard Price

Something is broken in Kenny Becker’s life, but he doesn’t know what it is or how to fix it. At thirty, he’s stuck in a dead-end job, and he has mixed feelings about his relationship with La Donna. Maybe he loves her. Maybe he enjoys having a woman around for sexual reasons. He wonders what happened to the promises of his youth when he dreamed of finishing college and becoming a teacher. He loves to read. Or he used to love to read, but he no longer spends much time reading. Now, he prefers to do sit-ups to keep his belly tight for the admiration of both the males and females he knows. Maybe he once had a sound mind, but the hedonist, drug-fueled disco cultures of the 1970s has convinced him that a sound body is a far more important pursuit. He’s not a great guy—racist, misogynistic, self-sabotaging—but no one would call him evil incarnate. 

In short, he’s a typical person, an average person, and he can’t believe such a fate falls on him. He doesn’t stand out in the crowd. Maybe he’s a touch better looking than most, perhaps he can make you laugh with a “riff” or attract you with his outgoing nature, but he’s sure he deserves more from life. When he realizes he’s a disappointment to himself, he begins a week of self-evaluation and struggle. It begins Monday night when La Donna tests her luck at a talent competition at a local nightclub. Though Kenny pays for her singing lessons, he has no faith in her talent. The week ends Sunday evening, when Kenny—jobless, single, and suffering only a vague sense of his future—calls an old friend to make dinner plans. Between lies a journey filled with despair, loneliness, frustration, sexual confusion, and indecision.

Like Kenny’s feelings for La Donna, I have mixed feelings about Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man. Published in 1978, when Disco was king—a dying king, but still king—Ladies’ Man feels like a novel of its time. Which forces me to wonder: Has it aged well? Since it’s written in the first-person point-of-view of a man comfortable with racial slurs, gender slangs, and other hateful language, many passages stood out as offensive to our “woke” society. I don’t think this is terrible writing; indeed, I think it shows the talent Price has for getting into the mind of his protagonist. But in a society where we can’t say the n-word even when referring to it, I suspect many readers would be turned off by this novel. And Kenny reminds us of many racial and ethnic slurs long forgotten by society. 

I suppose we can excuse this language as a realistic element that existed in New York City during the 1970s, but since racism and “toxic masculinity” still exists, those elements alone do not date this story. It’s loaded with cultural references from television, movies, and music. There’s a theory in creative writing that states a writer should go easy on cultural references because time obscures them, and they don’t mean the same thing to a reader forty, fifty years on that they meant to the contemporary reader. I reject this theory, and so does Price. Cultural references exist in real life; we employ them all the time. How many times have I heard Covid-19 compared to Thanos? What will people living in 2060 make of that comparison? Perhaps it’ll be as obscure to them as Kenny’s referencing a movie called Heart of Glass was to me. Though I didn’t understand all of Kenny’s references, I understood enough of them to know it was the 1970s and to know his mindset and values. They helped to develop his character and to establish a place and time for this story. 

Love. We fought like the U. S. Marines, and the only pleasure we ever got with each other was the hour between the end of a fight and sleep. That was the only time we really talked or fucked. The rest of the time we walked around afraid of each other, not really understanding or appreciating each other; what I found funny she thought pathetic or mean and what she found funny I usually considered a major yawn. I loved good balling and movies. She was into modern dance and nightclub-style singing. 

Kenny’s voice is the best element in Ladies’ Man. Though many passages made me uncomfortable, no passage felt unrealistic or false. Richard Price did a great job of emerging himself in this character. The events in this novel are precisely the type of activities Kenny Becker would engage in during this week of indecision and self-evaluation. He’s a man looking for himself. As a reader, we know he’s looking for himself in the wrong places—peep shows, single bars, brothels, gay bars—but we can relate to that;  we have all experimented with self-destruction. How often have we realized we are our own worst enemy?

Ladies’ Man reminds me of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. They seem to have the same themes, the same environment, the same movement away from what is “cool” towards what is “real.” Both novels end with ambiguity and uncertainty. We don’t know what McInerney’s “You” will do in the future, but we do sense he’s in a healthier mindset. The same is true of Kenny Becker in Ladies’ Man, but with a little more ambiguity and a lot more uncertainty. At the end of Bright Lights, Big City, we know the protagonist had learned his lesson. Has Kenny learned his lesson? Or is he setting himself up for a whole new chain of failure and disappointments?

Born in 1948, Richard Price has established himself as a writer of realistic novels about contemporary America. One way to judge Ladies’ Man is as a snapshot in time, a look of one week in the life of Kenny Becker. And during that week, we get a look at what it’s like to be single in the 1970s in New York City. Price’s other novels include The Wanderers (1974), Clockers (1992), and Lush Life (2008). He also writes screenplays. He gave us the screenplays for The Color of Money (1986), Night and the City (1989), and Ransom (1996). Along with Spike Lee, he adapted his novel Clockers into the 1995 film of the same title. 

All the while I was fighting down a queasy feeling, as if I was about to reenlist or buy the Brooklyn Bridge. In the back of my mind I knew what I was doing, that I was blowing it again. Scared, I was trying to bury my brains by burying my dick. Trying to fuck my fear, but fuck it, I couldn’t deal with it any other way. So there I was dressing to the nines and trying to feel like Tony singing “Tonight” in West Side Story. It was Las Vegas night in my heart, and I had selective amnesia. 

I like to end my reviews with a recommendation to either read it or not, but I can’t offer one. Some will read Ladies’ Man and laugh, others will cry, but many people, I suspect, will cringe. Several times while reading it, I thought I hated the novel. Just as many times, I thought I enjoyed it. Now that I had finished it, my feelings are still mixed, but I’m leaning towards having enjoyed it. Though I’ve known about Richard Price for decades, this is the first time I’ve read his work. The theme, style, and quality are much what I expected. It makes me curious about his other work. I’ve added The Wanderers to my reading list. Price is a good writer, but I fear I had selected the wrong novel to introduce myself to him.     

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