Rick Moody is the author, most recently, of Hotels of North America. His other highly acclaimed works include the novels Garden State, The Ice Storm, Purple America, The Diviners, and The Four Fingers of Death; the fiction collections The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, Demonology, and Right Livelihoods; and the nonfiction books The Black Veil, and On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures in Listening. He is the recipient of the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, the Addison M. Metcalf Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and numerous other awards.
Hotels of North America, out this month from Little, Brown, embodies and interrogates a particularly American version of modernity. In addition to his new novel, Moody and I recently discussed literary theory, technology, and the writing process. Our conversation took place over email — sent and received, for the most part, late at night via smartphone.
The Millions: In The Black Veil you describe being “converted” after diagramming parts of Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida. Does Derrida remain an influence? How would you say literary theory has informed your concerns as a writer?
Rick Moody: Theory was and is still important to me. I still really admire Derrida and feel that my contact with his early work in English — Of Grammatology above all others, but not to the exclusion of Dissemination, Glas, etc. — was life-changing for me. I also really loved Foucault and Barthes.
Do I keep up with theoretical developments now? I admire Avital Ronell’s writing a great deal, and clearly Žižek is of interest. But I think the rigorous epistemological thinking of continental philosophy in the ’60s and ’70s has given way to skepticism, in some quarters, and drives for something like ideological purity at other extremes. The world of theory, that is, is not as it once was. I happened to encounter it at a very fertile moment for the discipline (if that’s even the right word). What I loved above all was the language, the hair-splitting, the monstrous clauses, the paradoxes, the neologisms. It felt playful to me, like experimental fiction, which also exerted a powerful pull in those days. Though the purists would say theory was anti-modernist in some ways (thus post-modernist), it still felt new to me, revolutionary, and thus consonant with Pound’s modernist credo: make it new. I still want my work to be new in that way, today, if possible. I abhor repeating myself. And I still often think about philosophy. I am no expert, but the philosophical bedrock of theory is something I still am grappling with. This year: Heidegger.
TM: I love Derrida’s style — for the playfulness you mention, and for its rigor. Though it seems the skepticism you bring up was ushered in by Derrida himself (and de Man) — the infinite drift of language, the impossibility of “perfect communication,” the indeterminacy of meaning, etc. I guess my question for you is: how do you manage to approach writing in a way that moves beyond postmodern skepticism and exhaustion?
RM: This is a difficult question to answer. In a way, the answer is simply that I don’t feel skeptical in my person, in my voice, in my heart. This would be a loaded statement, because besides relying on “heart,” a decidedly dim-witted and timeworn cliché, the remark implies that there is a stable and perceptible Rick Moody who can with any assurance use the word “I.” I incline toward the idea that I am just a series of tendencies rather than a reliable person — a society of mind, as I think Marvin Minsky used to say. But let’s assume there is a sort of a Rick Moody, an effect of the work attributed to Rick Moody, and that his “heart” refers to something that we can more or less agree on — a preliminary set of assumptions maybe. This Rick Moody, at least for today, feels that skepticism is a remainder of continental philosophy, a rime thereof, but not an adequate or complete trace product. In Derrida, the style is the way out; the writing is the third term in the opposition between theory and practice. You know all the lingo, I don’t have to rehearse it here. The work produced is the solution to the problems laid bare in the work. It’s not what you do with the work, it’s the work itself, the process of it, that indicates the way out. I still believe in this, or it believes in me. The work believes in me. The books don’t matter, the reviews don’t matter, the career doesn’t matter, the students don’t matter, though I love the language of all these things. Only the process matters. I have no skepticism about that, and I’m not exhausted.
TM: How conscious are you of a work’s eventual audience — while writing, or during the editing process? Do you consider the reader at all, or does the work enjoy a kind of autonomy?
RM: I never think about audience. But as DeLillo says, I write with standards in mind. I write for the audience that shares the standards, whoever they are.
TM: Speaking of DeLillo, in an earlier interview you discussed his method of working in discrete chunks, which he then “glues together.” I was fascinated when I read somewhere that he composes with a single paragraph on each page in order to see the sentences more clearly. What’s the unit of composition in your novels? Does this differ from the unit of composition in the stories?
RM: The particular formal method of composition has changed with each book, as each suggests its own thematically-based approach. I will say that having a child has gotten in the way of work a bit — in that I rarely have a long span of consecutive work days now. With Hotels of North America, I therefore tried to devise a unit of composition that favored how I am able to work in this family-friendly moment, which unit of composition consisted of 500 to 1,500 word “reviews” usually written first thing in the morning. The narrative arc of this book was retrofitted at a later point, in rewrites.
That said, I just spent all summer working on a short story composed in the usual way: written (and rewritten) from beginning to end. And the idea for the next book is similarly organic, to write fast without overthinking. So each work proposes an approach, even as the actual infrastructural attack is more or less consistent. Word processor plus brain plus history of literature plus play plus hard copy plus red pen.
TM: I definitely have questions about Hotels of North America. In general, however, would you say your shorter fiction is more “sentence-centric” than the novels? I know you train a great deal of attention on the “novelistic” sentences, but I’m wondering how your focus changes with a longer text. A story like “Boys” (which comes up quite a bit, and which I love) seems to be nearly generated by its initial sentence, “Boys enter the house, boys enter the house.” Is this as often the case with your novels and novellas?
RM: There’s a story in the as yet unpublished collection #4, the title story, in fact, that repeats the theme-and-variations fugal structure of “Boys” called “She Forgot.” (I could write a whole sequence of these now, forgetting stories, so full is my family right now with acute forgetting disorders. I wish I could forget some of the forgetting.) I think it will be recognizable to people who like “Boys,” and also as a reply to a certain major work of conceptual prose writing that recently got its Library of America edition.
I do think short fiction is good for experiment. A failed idea there will only set you back a couple months. The strategy in the short story, for me, is this: follow the language, not the story, and see where it goes. Doesn’t mean there’s no story, because that’s too easy. But it means the stories are language first. A model would be late Beckett, or, differently, Amy Hempel.
TM: I’ll try to ask this next question in a way that isn’t reductive. [Hotels protagonist] Reginald Morse and Rick Moody the author share first and last initials. Are any other commonalities merely coincidental? What, if anything, did you smuggle in, and what might have leaked in? When you’ve drawn on your own experience, do you find the material transformed beyond recognition in the work?
RM: So do Wyatt Gwyon and William Gaddis share initials. To be frank, I didn’t realize Reg had the same initials until I was nearly done with the thing. There are other heavily freighted aspects to his name, from my point of view, that have nothing to do with this coincidence you allude to in the department of naming. After all, my initials are HFM, and his are REM.
Is he autobiographical in some way? More so, perhaps, than Morton the ape from The Four Fingers of Death, at least if adjudged by his life circumstances. But in a way I think Morton is the most autobiographical of characters in my work. Or, to put it another way: all characters are autobiographical, more or less. And all literary work is autobiographical, even abstruse nouveaux romans of the Robbe-Grillet or Sarraute variety. I don’t see how Hotels of North America is any more so than anything else I have written (I am the guy who wrote “Demonology,” e.g., or “Primary Sources,” not to mention The Black Veil). And, in the main, the goal was to try to figure out a way to make a novel, with character and narrative arc, from subliterary material: the hotel review form. I didn’t really think about Reg, except that I used whatever was easiest in terms of his life story, because the hard work was in having any story at all worked in around all the hotel stuff.
The rest of the autobiographical question — how much is him and how much me — is not inherently interesting to me. How much of Humboldt in Humboldt’s Gift is Delmore Schwartz? I don’t know, and I don’t go to that work for commentary on Delmore. I go to it for the sentences. I am hoping that those who read Hotels of North America are more interested in the slightly outlandish premise and the occasions of pathos that are admixed there than they are interested in crypto-autobiography. Or: if I really wanted to write a lot about myself, I’d just write another memoir…
TM: In a sense, your response dovetails with Morse’s purported desire (according to the “Rick Moody” of the afterword) that the work “be read for what it has to say about the world, not for what it has to say about Reginald Edward Morse.” What heavily freighted aspects of Morse’s name were you thinking of? The word “remorse” is an unavoidable association. Any connection to Samuel Morse, painter and telecommunications pioneer? Art and data transmission seem to be central concerns of Hotels of North America.
RM: I really like the Samuel Morse connection! That’s good! And yes obviously there is the other pun you allude to, lest one should think Reg is all bluster and condescension. I did have a good friend called John Morse in the first grade (this was at Ox Ridge School, Darien, Conn.). He was the gentlest young man, not one of those playground savages you often find among a random sampling of public school boys, even in such a rarified locale as Fairfield County. Anyway, once I was riding around with John Morse on our bicycles over by his house when we were set upon by a pair of Great Danes, larger than we were, and jet black. One knocked me right off my Schwinn Tornado, but having daintily sunk a few incisors into my posterior and its soft tissue, that hulking mass of Fairfield County wealth and privilege just stood there awaiting its mistress, an older lady who was very remorseless! She should have at least given me candy while I wept. Alas, no. Who felt the worst later that day, among the participants catalogued above? And does anyone but me remember that these events took place?
TM: I wanted to ask you about two quotes. In a review of the Tall Corn Motel in Des Moines, Reginald Morse calls the credit rating “that most American of data points.” Later, in a hilarious (though melancholy) section, Morse describes hotel pornography as being “at the heart of travel in America.” These passages suggest issues of connectivity and larger systems. Porn seems relevant in that Americans usually consume it alone, but also because of the increasing penetration of the delivery systems involved (cable, the Internet). Like the credit rating, opportunities for slaking desire via consumption seem inescapable now. I was wondering if you saw a connection between these systems, including the Interstate Highway System, I suppose, and the structure of the novel — each section is self-contained, yet branches out in multiple directions in an almost rhizomatic fashion.
RM: I was railing against the Internet in my workshop last night, castigating one of my very talented students for using multiple (fictional) Craigslist posts in his story. The Internet! Where humanism goes to die! Only in its absolute destitution, in the presumption there of delusion and id-driven belligerence, can there be any genuine truth to be found. And yet as Barthes points out: the site of total negation always contains the seeds of affirmation. I began the hotel reviews with the assumption that there was nothing human on the Internet to be found and then I set about constructing the opposite hypothesis. Whether this paradox is successfully employed here remains to be seen, whether total negation can result in affirmation, whether the black hole can emit heat. To address your question more directly: The lure of pornography and the obsession with FICO scores, etc., are like unto one another, yes. There is longing in each of the cases, on Reddit, on Experian, on YouPorn. Many users will be so blunted by human failure and by the narcotic effects of multi-national capital that they don’t even know what they are doing in these digital landscapes of auto-constructed fantasy. They don’t know what they are longing for, or they think longing is cheesy. Or they experience epiphany only in rhizomatic episodes, compulsive gaming fits, that rarely erupt into narrative arc in the conventional way. If identity consists of quantum mechanical tendencies and probabilities more than actual character, then a rhizomatic accumulation of isolated paroxysms of longing is more formally suggestive of character in this century, especially character interfacing with Internet, more so than the heroic narratives of individualism. It perhaps bears mentioning, now, that I have answered most of these questions in the middle of the night, on handheld device, during bouts of insomnia.
TM: What led you to use the first person for this novel?
RM: I assume you ask this because of my long-standing aversion to the first person. It is true: I dislike a certain kind of confessional and earnest first-person-narrated naturalism. I only get interested when the reliability of the first-person narrator is in question, when the reliability of narration itself is under scrutiny. There are any number of ways of doing this.
Your usage is interesting though: what “led me” to employ the first person? Sort of as if I had been, under duress, bludgeoning an intruder with a Teflon-coated fry pan! Or as if I had made use of a very bad chess opening: rook’s pawn! It’s a funny way to put it. I guess I was led to the first person by Ford Madox Ford and Nabokov and by some theoretical voices, critics, of narratorial practice, etc. I was also led there circuitously, having mostly employed either third person or what my student Liz Wood refers to as “sneaky first” for the vast majority of my published work between 1992 and 2005. Four Fingers of Death has some first (about half). I may simply have wanted to experiment with some new techniques. Travel broadens, as they say.
TM: As an author, what’s your take on “The Death of the Author?” I was practically handed the Barthes essay (as well as “The Intentional Fallacy”) with my MFA orientation materials, though since then I’ve encountered convincing arguments that don’t jettison authorial intention — quite the contrary. The phrasing “what led you” as opposed to “why did you choose” is perhaps a vestigial symptom of that earlier theoretical commitment; you’re right to point it out.
RM: That was never a Barthes essay that resonated with me exactly. I certainly feel a lot of forces speaking through the author, and it’s certainly the case that a stable, whole individual who is expressing her/himself is somewhat mythic, but “death” is the wrong word for the situation. It’s a bit overwrought. Maybe the allusion is to Nietzsche and Zarathustra. I feel very much alive. The language is the trace of it.
TM: You’ve spoken at length on the interrelatedness of music and prose. I’m curious whether visual art — particularly photography — has been a complementary influence on your work. Would you say your art criticism comes from the same place as your fiction?
RM: It’s funny how this isn’t a subject I have talked about much in public when my late sister was a photographer, my first girlfriend in college was a painter (and her family major collectors), my wife is a well-known visual artist, and I teach writing to visual artists very nearly half-time. I studied art history some at Brown, and I loved it. At all points in my development, the visual arts have been present, especially the lessons of the Northern Renaissance, Surrealism, Dada, AbEx, and conceptual art. Smithson and Judd, e.g., are people I think about a lot, and revere. I could name many other names, photographers included. In my creative inner sanctum, I travel freely among the 10,000 forms and don’t truly feel that the law of genre is a law that I must respect. I happen not to be gifted with talent in a specific medium of visual art, but my longing for contact with art has motivated all my writing on that subject, which in turn has surely been a source of material inspiration for fiction-making. The new book, in fact, comes directly out of my class in the art department at NYU, and through watching my wife think about her own conceptual footing. It is, in a way, a conceptual art project, in the way that Donald Barthelme was refractive of visual art. Doesn’t mean to be heavy-handed about it, or labored about it, but that influence is there, and I am glad to say it aloud.
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:
Peter 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’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.
Paterson, 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’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.
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’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.
Clockers, 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.
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.
In 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
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.”
Another 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.