Who Wrote the Great New Jersey Novel?

July 10, 2012 | 15 books mentioned 27 10 min read

While writing about the abiding appeal of one-word book titles here recently, I revisited an avatar of the breed, David Gates‘s Jernigan. This debut novel, which I’d discovered shortly after it was published in 1991, was even better the second time around – darker, sharper, funnier. The story is narrated by Peter Jernigan, a feckless, alcoholic New Yorker who takes his wife and their doomed marriage across the George Washington Bridge to the beckoning suburbs of northern New Jersey. There, surrounded by barbered lawns and the good life, they sink into a purgatory of booze and acrimony as their marriage and their lives unravel.

While re-reading the book I stumbled on a 1995 New York Times article that argued, persuasively, that Jernigan spawned a new strain of American literature that once would have been a bad joke. This type of novel had been appearing sporadically for many years. but suddenly, after the appearance of Jernigan, it began to gather the force of a sizable wave. Since then the wave has become a tsunami.

We’ll call it The New Jersey Novel.

Though it is one of the most densely populated and lavishly polluted states in the nation, New Jersey is not home to a single place that deserves to be called a city. Camden, anyone? Or how about Trenton, Newark, Elizabeth, Hoboken, Paterson or Piscataway? Or that chancre sore by the sea, Atlantic City? New Jersey also lacks the regional peculiarities that have nourished novelists in other parts of America – the urban thrum of the Eastern seaboard and the industrial Midwest, the magnolia murk and tortured history of the South, the soul-exposing vastness of the big-sky West, the sun-dazed sprawl of southern California. Instead, New Jersey has suburbs like the one Peter Jernigan retreated to, it has shopping malls, office parks, a seashore, some serious slums, and a thruway that slices through the world’s juiciest petrochemical badlands.  And, yes, the Garden State also has a few lovely bucolic pockets.

But as David Gates and other novelists began realizing about two decades ago, these shortcomings are, paradoxically, the source of rich fictional possibilities. New Jersey’s lack of defining character traits – its facelessness, its rootlessness, its lukewarmness – make it an ideal portal to get inside the soul of a nation that becomes more faceless, rootless and generic – more soulless – by the day, a nation where regional signifiers have been sanded smooth by interstate highways, franchise restaurants, big box stores, shopping malls, subdivisions, all the strangling, interchangeable links of the corporate chains. In contemporary America, anomie is a moveable feast, and its template was exported from New Jersey.

So what, beyond a New Jersey setting, makes a novel a New Jersey Novel?

“The Jersey novel is all about a fruitless attempt at finding community,” Michael Aaron Rockland told the Times. Rockland was identified as chairman of the American Studies department at Rutgers University and teacher of a class in something called “Jerseyana.” “My whole notion of New Jersey is that we live in a never-never land, where we pretend we’re living on a farm. The real centers of New Jersey are these office parks in the middle of nowhere. Life is not bad in New Jersey, not bad at all, but what every writer writes about is our trying to find a center in our lives.”

For the novelist Mark Leyner, who grew up in Maplewood, “New Jerseyness is a kind of vagueness. It’s peculiarly indeterminate.”

For David Gates, New Jersey and New York City will be forever joined at the hip. From his home in upstate New York, Gates said by telephone, “The reason I set the novel in New Jersey is because I wanted Peter Jernigan to be in the place that’s his worst snob’s nightmare. Many New Yorkers sneer at the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. As part of his scheme for undoing himself, New Jersey would be the place with the least cachet.”

Aside from its lack of cachet, was there something else about New Jersey that spoke to Gates?

“It’s a state where I easily get lost,” he said. “It’s directionless. There’s a kind of vagueness about it. And I was trying to stay away from Cheever‘s turf (in New York’s Westchester County).”

Which brings us to the question: Who wrote The Great New Jersey Novel? Here is my list of nominees – personal, random, and no doubt far from exhaustive:

David Gates

coverPeter Jernigan lives with his wife and their teenage son in a tract house with an aboveground pool on a quarter-acre of lawn in an unnamed New Jersey suburb. The place’s lack of a name is, in itself, significant. They couldn’t afford anything in Cheever country or farther upstate in New York, and the place they had to settle for is no palace. As Jernigan puts it: “This shitbox house of ours didn’t have any back door – just a blank wall with a couple of small, high windows – so you had to walk all the way around the fucking garage to get into the kitchen through the breezeway. I couldn’t imagine how the people who lived here before could have gone to the expense of putting in a pool – I hope you don’t think we’d put it in – and then not bothered to put a lousy screen door on the back side of the breezeway so you could get out to it. Then again, we’d been here, what, ten years and hadn’t bothered either.”

Like so many of his fellow Garden Staters, Jernigan must make the deadening train commute to a deadening job in New York every morning, then repeat the drill every evening. Here’s Jernigan surveying his fellow home-bound commuters: “All the men looked like me. Human basset hounds in wrinkled suits. Except they were drunk, lucky bastards, from their after-work stop-off at Charley O’s or something. Ties loosened, breathing through their mouths.”

In Jernigan’s New Jersey the indignities can be as big as a split-level shitbox or as small as a trip to buy a gallon of gas for the lawnmower. Here’s Jernigan watching the attendant do his job at a full-service gas station: “Here in the Garden State they actually don’t allow you to be a man and pump your own; some union bullshit…”

This atmosphere of vague disaffection sharpens when Jernigan’s wife dies in a drunken car accident and his son starts dating a disturbed girl. A lot of the kids in Jernigan are disturbed; some are so disturbed they shoot themselves with needles or guns. When Jernigan starts sleeping with the disturbed girl’s mother, a survivalist who breeds rabbits in her basement (for food), his descent hits full throttle. It bottoms out, at least for me, when he goes down to the bunny death chamber, presses the barrel of a pistol to the webbing between his left thumb and index finger, and squeezes the trigger. Why does Jernigan shoot himself? “To see what it would be like.”

What makes the novel great is that it’s rooted in the vivid particulars of its place – the split-level, the pool, the commuter train, the rabbits, the gas station – and then it bursts out of its skin to say something universal about the harsh dignity of surviving, even if the survivor winds up, like Jernigan, in rehab, minus a thumb. Our peculiarly American hero, battered but unbowed, utters the novel’s closing lines during a 12-step group therapy session: “But when it comes around to you, you have to give them something, if only name and spiritual disease. That’s the rule here. So what I’ve figured out is this. I stand up and say: Jernigan.”

Jane Shapiro

cover Jane Shapiro’s debut novel, After Moondog, appeared a year after Jernigan. But beyond their age and settings, the two novels have little in common. Shapiro’s narrator, Joanne, meets her future husband William on a New York street corner commandeered by a motor-mouthed homeless person in a silver Viking helmet named Moondog. Joanne and William marry, move to the New Jersey suburbs, and raise two children. The reason they did all this, according to Joanne, was to “deepen our sense of stability and own a small green lawn.” Instead they get those durable staples of suburban life: extra-marital affairs and a divorce.  We’re a long way from Jernigan’s split-level shitbox and his girlfriend with rabbits and a gun in the basement, but we’re still very much in New Jersey.

Junot Díaz

coverPaterson, the inspiration for William Carlos Williams‘s masterpiece and the birthplace of Allen Ginsberg, will never be confused with the lush New Jersey suburbs. For this reason, among many others, it makes a fertile backdrop for Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Dominican diaspora, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which spins around the trials and strivings of a young Dominican nerd who reads Tom Swift and is drunk on comic books and science fiction. Díaz tells the story of his title character (a bastardization of Oscar Wilde) in a breezy, muscular vernacular. It’s a story about the absorption of immigrants into the American middle class, and it’s enriched by a vivid portrait of the monstrous dictator Rafael Trujillo these immigrants left behind in their homeland. It was wise of Díaz not to set his novel in New York City’s better-known Dominican enclaves of Washington Heights or the Lower East Side. What could possibly be a grittier or more generic gateway to the American middle class than Paterson, New Jersey?

Richard Ford

cover Richard Ford’s New Jersey Novel is actually a trilogy – The Sportswriter, Independence Day (the first novel to win both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and The Lay of the Land. All three revolve around what goes on inside the head of a New Jersey citizen named Frank Bascombe, a failed novelist who turns to sportswriting and eventually becomes a real-estate agent while weathering the storms of a young son’s death, divorce, cancer, and the quiet dwindling of expectations. Frank Bascombe, like his home state, is a poster boy for the uncelebrated. “Better to come to earth in New Jersey than not to come at all,” Franks says, in what has to be the most left-handed compliment any state ever received. Here’s another of New Jersey’s virtues: “Illusion will never be your adversary here.”

Ford, to paraphrase Emerson, seems to believe that literature consists of what a man is thinking about all day. The life that gets lived inside Frank Bascombe’s head is, in the words of one reviewer, “unassuming, ordinary, sometimes dull.” Perfect for New Jersey.

Philip Roth

cover There has been no shortage of artists mining New Jersey’s marvels, heartaches, and horrors, from William Carlos Williams to Bruce Springsteen, the Feelies, the filmmakers Louis Malle (Atlantic City) and Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness), and the writer John McPhee, who in 1968 published a non-fiction classic about the state’s sandy midriff called The Pine Barrens. And let’s not forget Tony Soprano or that adorable posse from Jersey Shore. But if the state has a home-grown laureate, it is surely Philip Roth. No writer has returned more frequently or fruitfully to his New Jersey roots, particularly to working-class Jewish Newark in the years before, during and after the Second World War.

While it would be possible to argue that a handful of Roth’s works qualify as The Great New Jersey Novel, I’m going to single out American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Roth’s canvas is vast, ranging from Newark as a thriving industrial city to Newark as a wreck gutted by racism, greed, and fear. We see the bloody fruit of the disillusionment spawned by the Vietnam War, and we come to know the fictional hamlet of Old Rimrock, nestled in one of New Jersey’s lovely bucolic pockets that looks much as it looked before the Revolutionary War, the implausibly pretty place where the novel’s hero, Swede Levov, is robbed of his perfect life.

Rick Moody

cover Rick Moody’s first novel, Garden State, won a Pushcart Prize for its depiction of teenagers coming of age in the 1980s in a northern New Jersey hole called Haledon. They try to form a band, they do drugs, they light themselves on fire, they fall off roofs. It’s all so New Jersey.

The Feelies had a lot to do with the making of this dark novel. As Moody said in an interview (collected in The Pleasure of Influence): “I’ve always revered the Feelies and when I started writing Garden State I listened almost incessantly to this one record called The Good Earth. What I liked about it was it seemed like its ambition was to tell the truth about what it was like for someone in their twenties, sort of rattling around in the suburbs without particular ambitions to get any further than that. So it seemed to be true to me, sort of a true document. And that was what I aspired to do, in a way – add a sort of fictional analog to the record with Garden State.”

So the novel was written under the influence of the Feelies. That explains a lot.

Richard Price

coverClockers, set in and around a thinly disguised Jersey City housing project, may be the most anthropological novel ever to come out of New Jersey. Its adversaries are Strike, the black leader of a crew of low-level cocaine dealers, and Rocco Klein, a burnt-out homicide cop looking for a little late-career redemption. Through them – through Price’s dogged reporting – we learn an encyclopedia’s worth of information about the warring tribes of street dealers and cops, their dress, language, working methods, scams, fears, hatreds, and occasional capacity for grace. Strike is a remarkable creation, a teenager who swills Yoo-Hoo to soothe an ulcer as he endures humiliations from every quarter – from his boss, his girlfriend, the cops, and the thing they’re paid to serve and protect: white society. As one reviewer put it, “So much information is disseminated that by the end of the novel the reader feels more or less ready to investigate a homicide or start up a drug operation, or both.” One thing the reader will not be ready to do is move into a Jersey City housing project.

P.F. Kluge

A New Jersey native, the prolific and under-appreciated novelist P.F. Kluge spent the summer of 1962 working as a newspaper reporter in Vineland. The time and place became the backdrop for his atmospheric novel about a band of early Jersey rockers, Eddie and the Cruisers, a paean to the glory days before the British Invasion, before Springsteen and Southside Johnny. The novel was made into a movie starring Tom Berenger and Ellen Barkin.

Tom Perrotta

coverIn his first novel, The Wishbones, Tom Perrotta worked a minor miracle. His 31-year-old protagonist Dave Raymond is fitfully employed as a courier, still living at home with his parents in the New Jersey suburbs, still dating his high-school sweetheart, and moonlighting nights and weekends in a wedding band that gives the book its title. They cover hits from the ’70s and ’80s, including, yes, “Stairway to Heaven.” Dave and his bandmates call each other “Buzzmaster” and “Daverino,” and their lives are suffused with “the unmistakable odor of mediocrity.” And yet – here’s the miracle – Perrotta never condescends to these characters, or their New Jersey milieu, or their stubborn refusal to join the adult world. It’s a remarkable achievement, drawing tenderness out of mediocrity. Few writers have the courage, the compassion or the skill to pull it off.

Perrotta optioned his second novel to the movies before he could sell it to a publisher. Election, which became an Oscar-nominated movie starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, is set in suburban Winwood, New Jersey in 1992 and revolves around the election of a high school president. The election brings out the best in the people of Winwood: raw ambition, back-stabbing, lesbian sex, sex between students and teachers, and, of course, vote stealing. If more people had read the book or seen the movie, that stolen U.S. presidential election in 2000 might not have been quite so shocking.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

cover Princeton University doesn’t belong in New Jersey any more than Richard Nixon did, but there it sits, midway between Philadelphia and New York, an eternal beacon to the sons of daughters of privilege. Nearly a century ago, a Princeton undergraduate set out to make his literary name and woo back a southern belle who had jilted him because he didn’t have enough money. The result was This Side of Paradise (1920), the debut novel that made F. Scott Fitzgerald into an overnight literary star and helped win back Zelda Sayre. Not everyone appreciated Fitzgerald’s knowing portrayal of Princeton’s booze-marinated clubbiness. University president John Grier Hibben sniffed, “I cannot bear to think that our young men are merely living four years in a country club and spending their lives wholly in a spirit of calculation and snobbishness.”

Geoffrey Wolff

coverAnother novel to come out of Princeton was Geoffrey Wolff’s The Final Club, which has been called “Fitzgerald on fast-forward” because it updates the clubbiness of Paradise to the 1950s. The clubs in question are the university’s so-called eating clubs, otherwise known as fraternities. Wolff’s novel dissects the degrading rituals surrounding admission, while adding a bitter dash of anti-Semitism.

The envelope, please

And the winner is…David Gates. Those bunnies in the basement and the thumb lost to a self-inflicted gunshot wound – they tipped the scales for me.

Of course you’re free to disagree and choose someone else from the list. Or someone who’s not on the list. Or someone most of us don’t know about, but should.

Image credit: Flickr/formulanone.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. I would submit Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets. It captures the suburban angst of post-Great Recession New Jersey quite nicely.

  2. Thank you for mercifully leaving Franzen’s FREEDOM–or at least the Katz components set in Jersey City and Maxwell’s of Hoboken–off of this great list. I’ve thought about this question myself over the years, too, always settling on Roth’s GOODBYE, COLUMBUS mostly for this awesome description that perfectly sums up my old commute into the suburbs each day for high school:

    “Once I’d driven out of Newark, past Irvington and the packed-in tangle of railroad crossings, switchmen shacks, lumberyards, Diary Queens, and used-car lots, the night grew cooler. It was, in fact, as though the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs rose in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven, for the sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder, and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open, for those inside, refusing to share the very texture of life with those of us outside, regulated with a dial the amounts of moisture that were allowed access to their skin. It was only eight o’clock, and I did not want to be early, so I drove up and down the streets whose names were those of eastern colleges, as though the township, years ago, when things were named, had planned the destinies of the sons of its citizens. I thought of my Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max sharing a Mounds bar in the cindery darkness of their alley, on beach chairs, each cool breeze sweet to them as the promise of afterlife, and after a while I rolled onto the gravel roads of the small park where Brenda was playing tennis. Inside my glove compartment it was as though the map of The City Streets of Newark had metamorphosed into crickets, for those mile-long tarry streets did not exist for me any longer, and the night noises sounded loud as the blood whacking at my temples.”

    I do have a bone to pick with your allegation that NJ lacks for what other states might call a city, though. Perhaps that’s true today, in the age of megalopolises that sprawl further than they should. Perhaps it’s a matter of fact that Northern NJ’s proximity to NYC and Southern NJ’s proximity to Philly makes the state’s own cities appear smaller and less distinct than they truly are. Either way, I believe Newark has more historic character–even national importance, when one looks into the race riots–than many other “cities” elsewhere in this country, especially in New York, which I’ve always felt was the most top-heavy state in the nation.

    Hoboken, my hometown, and its neighboring enclaves such as Bayonne and Union City (home to more Cubans than even Havana–and second in the world only to Miami) are soaked in history as well. Baseball was invented here. Football was invented here. The folks who made NYC into what it was–literally made it, as in constructed it–were from here. This is all to say nothing of course of Atlantic City down south, whose historical import to this country is pretty apparent.

    As someone from Detroit, Bill, you should acknowledge that often a city’s past and legacy can be just as important as its present existence–and that if its present existence is a bit diminished, it doesn’t mean that the city wasn’t great at one time :)

  3. Nick,
    Point taken. Cities are not defined merely by size – “megalopolis” or “sprawl,” to use your words – but by the successful functioning of density, things like street life, a rich ethnic mix, mass transit, the proximity and variety of cultural offerings. As Philip Roth pointed out in “American Pastoral,” Newark was once such a place, thanks to its thriving glove industry. But as the novel makes so achingly clear, that city is gone now and nothing has risen to take its place. So I’ll stand by my claim that New Jersey is not home to a single true city TODAY.

    I didn’t know that baseball and football were invented in New Jersey, but I was aware that many Jerseyites share your home-state pride. In that Times article I quoted, New Jersey native Mark Leyner notes that his vast store of state trivia includes the achievements of William Carlos Williams, the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and the names of all the New York Yankees who used to live in Teaneck. I think most Americans share this bizarre strain of hometown pride. My fellow Detroiters still get misty about the Model T, Ty Cobb and Stroh’s beer – three things that have, mercifully, faded from the scene. Unfortunately, that timeless Motor City delicacy, the Coney Island hot dog, endures.

  4. Mr. Morris, you don’t know much about New Jersey. I took Prof. Rockland’s class at Rutgers, by the way. Maybe he’ll let you audit the next time it’s offered.

  5. Yep, I’ll certainly take that, Bill. I agree with Gates that the state today has “a kind of vagueness about it.” Probably it’s to do with the fact that its best history is behind it, and that the North is different from the South of the state anyway–it’s a “novel-in-stories” of a state in that its got pockets of varying history all over the place, little sketched vignettes more than a cohesive narrative, or even one that’s recognizable today. We’re a hodgepodge like that.

    Much of my estimation of the state, I’ll admit, has been passed down from my family members who’ve lived here for decades, who remember things (or know where to find things) that don’t exist here anymore unless you really, really look for them. In Hoboken, for example, there’s a block of luxury condominiums where a few of the NY Giants live; it’s called The Maxwell. Fifty years ago, The Maxwell was a real Maxwell House Coffee Plant, and the entire city of Hoboken smelled like roasted java beans each morning. You’d be hard pressed to find a resident today who even knows about that; the gentrification of the city tossed those folks to Weehawken and West New York long ago. But then again, that’s probably true in a lot of places in this country, and always will be.

    P.S. I’m suddenly unbearably hungry for a Coney…

  6. If American Pastoral had not been on this list, I would have deleted my bookmark for The Millions and been on my way. It is the great American novel of the second half of the 20th century. Second place is a greater debate, but I’d go with The Sportswriter.

    As a native New Yorker it has been a slow, painful realization that the “other side” of the bridge has as good as, if not better, roster of writers than New York. Whatever the great New York novel happens to be, it was almost certainly written by someone who wasn’t born there. (Great Gatsby, anyone?)

  7. Tom Perotta’s book of linked stories, “Bad Haircut”, also set in New Jersey, definitely needs to be mentioned.

  8. I was born and raised in New Jersey, and the place this article describes–to be frank–sounds nothing like the New Jersey I know. If you were to abstract the state, sure, there are drones in office parks, ratty teenagers and prissy ladies in the malls, and a burning strip of sunbathers along the shore. But I don’t see how that translates into vagueness or a lack of community, history, or “center.” If you have a bit of imagination (and you actually go there), you’ll see that New Jersey is a vivid, diverse place, rife with dreamers and eccentrics, not just an expanse of manicured lawns, toxic dumps, and extramarital affairs curling at the edges.

    This strikes me as a singularly male (oh, sorry, one female writer, thanks) and outsider perspective on the state.

  9. If Cory Booker sees the post he’s going to tweet the hell out of you, dude. Not to mention the good people of Haledon — that’s a real town where people live, you know.

    But seriously — New Jersey is no more or less an authentic place that anywhere else. In broad outline, it’s basically the same as Connecticut — a bunch of decayed, not-yet-gentrified satellite cities surrounded by lush suburbs and exurbs, a lot of rich people (N.J. has three or four of the ten wealthiest counties in the country, and trades places with Connecticut as the two states with the highest per-capita incomes), criscrossed by commuter rail lines to Manhattan, and one Ivy League university. To me, the one discernible advantage Nutmeggers have over Jerseyans is that they get to enter New York through Grand Central instead of the catacombs of Penn.

    But no one seems to say any of the bad things about Connecticut that they say about Jersey, even though they’re all just as applicable. And yet your list of great novels set in New Jersey seems to outshine the lists one could compile from a whole lot of other states. (Again with Connecticut — off the top of my head I can think only of Revolutionary Road and Something Happened.)

    Ultimately, though, I don’t think this sort of regionalism really serves any of us. (I’m a proud New Jerseyan, but I find things like the New Jersey Hall of Fame patheticly provincial and embarrassing.) Who’s keeping score, anyway?

  10. Some great novels here. Though a vagueness? maybe if you come here from New York, and hide in a commuter suburb. Like its many terrains, Jersey has many different cultural regions. If you think Jersey is generic, you haven’t traveled much. If there ‘s no novel that describes the state as a microcosm of the country’s class and race issues, I’ll have to write it.

  11. Tsk, tsk, tsk… where is Sam Lipsyte??? HOME LAND! Venus Drive.
    “Painful” by Yo La Tengo would also qualify, I believe–perhaps as “prose poem.”

  12. New Jersey is complex. It has a population larger than Iceland with as many ethnicities and nationalities as the EU packed within a tiny space. There are farms, orchards, gritty urban areas, seashore reminiscent of NC’s Hilton Head, and an entire southern stretch of cranberry bogs. It is not simply surburbia. There is also a mentality that few outside of New Jersey understand. I think that’s where the comment about “a New Yorker’s version of New Jersey” may be apropos.

    To give a literary perspective to New Jersey is difficult. We’re the red-headed step-cousin of New York. We don’t have a wide supply of novelists yearning to mark its uniqueness. It is why a friend and I edited an anthology of short fiction, poetry, and essays from New Jersey writers about NJ. I edited it but I mention the anthology because it is not just me but voices( including Micheal Rockland) from North, South and Central Jersey, from exit 3 to exit 9 to exit 15 of the turnpike. It is called “What’s Your Exit”.

  13. How did I guess before even clicking the link that this would in fact be about the Great NORTH Jersey Novel? It’s not the fault of the writer, it’s the fault of all writers that for some reason literary history has completely ignored nearly half of the state of New Jersey. (To be fair, the Junot Diaz novel features scenes in Wildwood but it felt like name only — does he even describe what it looks like?)

    It’s like what if no one ever wrote a New York novel that took place below 14th Street?

  14. Erik,
    You’re a tough man to please! You contend that “it’s the fault of all writers that for some reason literary history has completely ignored half of the state of New Jersey.” I don’t believe literary history sets out to ignore places, nor do I believe it’s anybody’s “fault” that so many terrific novels happen to be set in northern New Jersey, including “American Pastoral,” “Jernigan” and “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” to a name a few. Help us out here. Tell us about the great SOUTH Jersey novel.

  15. I don’t think anyone has. There’s like a complete media blackout about the place. Yet there it is, this vast chunk of the state where “What exit are you from?” doesn’t even mean anything because there is no Turnpike, the greenest part of the Garden State, filled with cranberry bogs, fishing towns where fresh muskrat is served at diners, the most dangerous city in the country (Camden), the final resting place of Walt Whitman (Camden), the weirdest beach town in America (Wildwood), the prettiest beach town in America (Cape May)…I could go on, as could anyone from SJ, but they don’t, because there just aren’t any books about it, and frankly I’m not sure why. If no one had ever written a novel about Downtown Manhattan we’d have to blame someone for ignoring it, right? So I’m blaming everyone.

  16. Erik, you might be interested in the poetry of Stephen Dunn, especially his book “Local Visitations.” And — again, not a novel, but just as rewarding — The Pine Barrens if you haven’t read it already.

    I wouldn’t feel too badly about it — after all, no one’s written The Great Delaware Novel yet, either. However — there is too a Turnpike in South Jersey! Half of it is below Trenton and runs right through the Philadelphia suburbs! And “what exit?”, tiresome as it is, really applies more to the Parkway — many, many more exits — which as we all know, Exit 1 is Cape May, etc.

  17. “New Jersey’s lack of defining character traits – its facelessness, its rootlessness, its lukewarmness – make it an ideal portal to get inside the soul of a nation that becomes more faceless, rootless and generic…”

    This introduction, along with Mr. Gates’ and Prof. Rockland’s comments, evokes the bedroom communities which dominate Northeastern New Jersey. New Yorkers and the daily bridge & tunnel crowd will read these narratives with some interest, obviously, but the texture of life in New Jersey changes dramatically as you focus on other communities.

    To name just one example, Roth’s Old Rimrock is only “implausibly pretty” if you’ve never been to the lush places near Morristown he drew on for that representation (probably Mendham).

    Reading the other comments, I’m not the only one who’s realized this. Thus, I’d like to submit a counterproposal to Prof. Rockland’s “New Jersey novel”: the Suburban novel, which mines New Jersey for the office parks, malls, and exhausted commuters and nothing else. Culturally brain-drained suburbs exist everywhere next to major cities, after all, and I don’t see any evidence that northeast New Jersey started this trend. This gives credit where its due to authors such as Roth or Diaz who have found such rich material in my home state, and without hiding in the shadow of Manhattan.

  18. Two other “New Jersey” novels of note are
    “The Loat Legends of New Jersey” which takes
    place in Livingston.
    It displays the character of the area and
    the angst of growing up in the sunburbs.
    The boy’s mother in the novel is involved in
    self mutilation.
    Turning further south, “Lotto Trouble” examines
    the corridor along Route 9 from South Amboy
    to Marlboro to Lakewood. It’s protagonist is an
    Indian imigrant who works in a gas station.
    Unable to afford his last year’s tuition at Rutgers
    his greed leads to the death of others when he
    decides to steal a winning lottery ticket he sold
    to a customer.

  19. “New Jersey also lacks the regional peculiarities that have nourished novelists in other parts of America – the urban thrum of the Eastern seaboard and the industrial Midwest, the magnolia murk and tortured history of the South, the soul-exposing vastness of the big-sky West, the sun-dazed sprawl of southern California.”

    As a native South Jerseyan, I can’t help but disagree with this sentiment. What about the Pine Barrens of Southern NJ? Certainly a very distinct region, with a very distinct cultural feeling about it. Certainly, not a lot has been written that underscores NJ’s “cultural peculiarities”–but this doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

  20. And, you know – on second thought, I would actually say that a lot already has been written on these “regional peculiarities” – proving that they do in fact exist. John McPhee’s “The Pine Barrens”, though not a novel, is a classic. More books are also now emerging that reflect the South Jersey experience, including Lisa Borders’ “The Fifty-First State”, and my own book, “The Truth and the Life”. There is much more to New Jersey–and to its literary potential–than the greater NYC area.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.