Repulsive characters go a long way back before 1978, but I can’t help noticing the peculiar slime of a guy whose girlfriend has a 105 degree temperature, and then says: “She fell asleep in my arms and I lay there furious because she didn’t acknowledge my sacrifice, the comforting strength of my goddamn presence. I wanted her to say ‘Thank you’ or ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you’ or ‘Oh, Kenny’ or something […]'” Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man spans a week, and this thought occurs on Friday, but the object of his objection has already dumped him in more a de facto than de jure manner on Monday or Tuesday. Like Kenny, the narrator, I found it difficult to remember what happened on what day. This is in part because nothing major happens to him, in the physical, emotional, or intellectual worlds, though a man who thinks: “It was my ‘leisure’ time and I was blowing it. What leisure time? That’s all I had was leisure time” is an unlikely person to have a great epiphany.
Like Ladies’ Man, however, Kenny is not without some redeeming qualities; he “pretend[s] to watch a basketball game which had orange guys against green guys.” This predates The Onion’s hilarious, “You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area,” which covers the same territory. But his lack of interest in basketball mirrors his lack of interest in most of the rest of his life, and he’s so ironic and distant and above the fray that I wonder if we should care about Kenny only as much as he cares about everything else. Even his relative humanity is insincere:
Nothing heavy. Just misty sadness. It was over. It had been the best and now it was over and nothing had ever felt as good. We had peaked back then, and all we’d been doing since was dying.
This is a 30-year-old reminiscing about sweaty high school makeouts. He’s self-indulgent in other ways: “No wonder I was so goddamn lonely. Friends, man. I didn’t have any fucking friends. And friends were the bottom line.” Well, yes, and we get 264 pages demonstrating exactly why Kenny has no friends. What’s he going to do when he’s, say, 50? Perhaps read The Sea, which is at least a higher level of melancholy wistfulness. Oh, and Max Morden is as nicer a person than Kenny as a golden retriever is a nicer animal than a cobra. One woman who Kenny picks up feels his bite, although it is one of indifference rather than venom. For a character with vastly greater self-absorption than Kenny who is also vastly less constrained by society, try John Self in Money, who is the king of these weak anti-Hemingways who are also created by Price, Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis.
I mention Hemingway because all three writers use devolved versions of his characters and prose. Kenny speaks without the classical background of Jake in The Sun Also Rises, and he has none of the restraint or passion of the characters in that book. Still, he whips out the occasional great metaphor in the pulp style: “For eighteen years that sound was an unnoticeable to me as my heartbeat” or “he had enough chest hair for a national park.” You can hear Elmore Leonard, or one of his models, George Higgins. These metaphors can’t redeem a long, awkward sex scene and lots of navel gazing or a character who can’t figure out that perhaps assholes are the only people who think everyone else is an asshole, as Kenny does at a bar: “Loud, suburban contractors and their wives, drunk Texans, Jap businessmen, medical students; assholes, all assholes.” We’ve been feeling scorn for the bourgeoise since Flaubert if not earlier, but now we have someone who doesn’t even recognize where his opinions come from, despite alluding to Joseph Conrad.
Kenny says things like “‘How many zorts that set you back?'” and wallows in the detritus of TV pop culture. Yes, we get it, but as the cliche goes, lie down with dogs and wake up with flees. Kenny, however, lacks the consciousness to realize this.
I read Ladies’ Man because I’d heard about Price’s Clockers and his new novel, Lush Life, both of which have been favorably compared to Ladies’ Man. I’ve read neither yet but intend to: Ladies’ Man is not without artistic redemption, and it sounds like Price’s bigger, better novels are worthier. Whether they live up to expectations remains to be seen.