Have you read Jernigan? It’s a novel by David Gates, published in 1992. It was a finalist for that year’s Pulitzer Prize, and it is a great book that, according to a very informal poll I recently conducted, no one has read, and most people haven’t heard of. The only reason I have: when I worked at EPOCH magazine, the journal’s long-time and much-beloved editor-in-chief, Michael Koch, stumped for Jernigan as something of an already lost classic. Over the course of the ensuing few years, I kept remembering, then forgetting, to read it. Finally, a few months ago, I recalled its existence when I had nothing else to read and bought it on Kindle. It’s a strange book to e-read. It’s one of those novels that really wants to be read as a physical book. As I scrolled along, I felt I should own a dog-eared and coffee-stained copy that I’d already reread once or twice before. It is familiar, mostly in good ways and a few bad.
It feels anachronistically familiar, I think, partly because it is a reminder of a kind of book that used to be written and published all the time about unhappy white guys. A host of factors—among them, an increased awareness of systemic sexism and racism and privilege facilitated by the internet and social media—more or less put an end to this kind of book, or at least forced it to shape-shift into, say, the techno-fascism of a Michel Houellebecq or the neo-Victorian realism of Jonathan Franzen. Jernigan is one of the last pure versions of this kind of book, but a better version that deserves rediscovery, one that in some thematic ways anticipates the end of its era.
From around 1950 to 2000, books about unhappy white guys were written frequently enough to constitute a subgenre of literary fiction: call it, let’s say, Unhappy White Guys. Or UWG. Of course, one might argue that UWG has been a genre since time immemorial, since before Hamlet stalked the parapet being mad at his stepfather. This is generally true, but I’m thinking here of a certain very specific type of unhappy white guy: post-war American, middle to upper-middle class, suburban, straight, and usually WASP. In other words, more or less, the most racially, sexually, and economically privileged people ever to walk the face of the earth, a class of human who faced no threat on any front, except from themselves.
For the purpose of this essay I would exclude books that don’t meet these full criteria. Hemingway’s novels, for instance, very much feature unhappy white guys, but they are mostly pre-WWII and shouldering the burden of war, what we would probably describe now as PTSD. Jake Barnes, for instance, is unhappy, white, and a guy, but his ambiguous war wound complicates what would otherwise be aimless ennui.
Leonard Michaels’s characters are often unhappy white guys, but they are largely Jewish and urban, with a sense of the world extending past the emerald rectangles of their front yards, and a sense of history that reaches back past the pictures on their fraternity walls. Likewise, Philip Roth, whose characters were also often less unhappy than horny, or unhappy because they were horny, at any rate featuring horniness as the dominant note. Updike’s white guys are not generally unhappy; as with Roth’s characters, they are also monomaniacally obsessed with their own phalluses, often to the exclusion of the outside world and any meaningful sense of angst about it. Speaking of angst: yes, Rabbit Angstrom is an unhappy white guy, but just barely, with his lower-class provenance, his salesman job, his grotty hometown in the Pennsylvania hills.
A facile timeline of UWG might be roughly drawn between the two Richards—Yates and Ford—and their two great protagonists, both named Frank. From Revolutionary Road to Independence Day, this genre tends to take up as its work the definition of a specific variety of late-20th-century spiritual malaise, the sense that, despite having it all (perhaps even because of it), life is still somehow lacking. It is a particular brand of pure, distilled dissatisfaction only possible if you have almost nothing else to truly worry about. Yet the unhappy white guys at the center of these stories, in one way or another, feel deceived. The American dream, as defined by a big house and two cars and wife and kids, has failed to deliver the happiness it promised, and so the protagonist casts around with increasing desperation trying to find the thing that is missing. Whatever else its failings and blind spots, this genre performs a valuable—if at times unintentional—autopsy on the idea of orthodox capitalist happiness. Per Don Draper, our foremost televised unhappy white guy: “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”
Yates and Cheever were probably its foremost early post-war practitioners, although Cheever, at least in his short fiction, was weirder and more of a fabulist, interested in the suburbs as both a locus of stifling orthodoxy and as a liminal space of potential magic (something I discuss here). Yates’s Frank Wheeler is the archetype: successful, smart, handsome, and completely fucking miserable. Though his abusive marriage with April Wheeler is almost operatically unhappy, the true locus of his misery is the floating unease at not finding magical satisfaction on Revolutionary Road.
One can draw a straight line from Frank Wheeler to Frank Bascombe, the hero of Richard Ford’s trilogy The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and (the execrably titled) Let Me Be Frank With You. If Wheeler is the archetype, Independence Day’s Bascombe is more or less the type’s mature culmination, mellowed by the real and fictional decades separating Wheeler and himself. Bascombe, a gently restive real estate agent, cannot please anyone: his clients, his ex-wife, his new girlfriend, his struggling son, himself. The moments of respite in this (beautifully written, but to me, somewhat agonizingly dull book) are the quiet moments of zen-like joy in the little things that the Jersey suburbs can provide as well as anywhere else. Here, Ford borrows directly from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, whose Binx Bolling, an unhappy white guy par excellence, genially harasses a procession of secretaries into unsatisfying affairs, while “spinning” up and down Biscayne Bay in a little red sportscar on what he calls “The Search.” The Search is hazily defined, but generally refers to a receptiveness to the ineffable moments of grace and sublime beauty that, if they could be constantly existed in, would make someone like Binx—or Frank Bascombe, or Frank Wheeler—stop being so unhappy, if not so white.
To return to Jernigan—it would, on appearances, seem to offer more or less textbook UWG. Peter Jernigan is a failing real estate agent and drinker; a pensive wanderer who falls into bed with a neighborhood woman he doesn’t especially like; a narcissistic man-child whose teenage son is more grown up than he is. But Jernigan’s narration, at turns both theatrically self-dramatizing and self-aware of his self-dramatization (the title itself winks at his habit of third-person self-reference), offers something beyond the customary portrait of suburban malaise.
The novel is, among other things, an anatomy of the alcoholic mind. Since losing his unstable wife a year earlier to a freak car accident (crucially, Jernigan begins with the spousal tragedy that ends Revolutionary Road), our hero has descended into a shadowland that finds him waking on his couch at odd hours, having nodded off while watching a baseball game or Star Trek reruns. But Gates smartly plays the alcoholic notes lightly, and the reader’s main attention is absorbed by Jernigan’s lacerating solipsism. His narration recalls the best unhappy white guys before him, while simultaneously acknowledging and undercutting the usual sense of stakesless ennui. Like Binx Bolling and Frank Bascombe, Peter Jernigan’s lassitude leads him into trouble and accounts for much of the novel’s plot, though Jernigan’s lassitude is not born so much of complacent spiritual unrest as it is of depression and subtly rendered near-constant intoxication. That it often reads like a standard-variety suburban comedy of errors is a testament to Gates’s supreme control of his subject and his subject’s illness. Jernigan views himself in a gently ironic light, a received self-image handed down from the likes of Frank Bascombe—that is, as a man of his time and place, committed to committing his mistakes, mostly harmless. Like many alcoholics (and the reader), Jernigan only becomes aware of the true immensity and horror of his situation when it’s too late; that is, when he’s practically frozen to death in an abandoned shack with alcoholic tremors.
Gates’s rendering of Jernigan’s alcoholic spiral feels spookily real. Not so much the outright delusions or denials, or the false moments of control—markers we’ve come to expect from addiction memoirs—as the steadily accretive fact of it in the background. A tossed-off mention of a beer with breakfast, a soda topped jauntily with a little gin to make the drive to New York more fun, and before we know it, Jernigan is once again waking in the half-light, trying to remember where he is. Although he is a self-dramatizing narrator (the form of the book is, as we find out later on, a kind of bravura confessional from the confines of a rehab facility) the rendering of drinking is the opposite of Fred Exley’s in A Fan’s Notes, one of Jernigan’s other UWG spiritual forebears. Exley is all wildness and braggadocio, the college kid who lines up liquor bottles on his dorm window; Jernigan’s drinking is the stealthy veteran drinking of middle age, an accounting that fudges the numbers as the tally climbs upward.
The overall effect is a book and narrator both firmly in the
UWG lineage, and also outside of it, in some ways commenting on it. The louche
sexual politics are of a piece with the genre, as is the anodyne feel of
Jernigan’s Reaganite Jersey suburbia. But despite the insularity of the locale,
and in contradistinction with the unhappy white guys before him, Jernigan faces
very real problems, and not just from himself. For instance, from the .22 rifle
in the basement that his girlfriend uses to kill farmed rabbits for supper; for
instance, from the ex-husband who shows up unannounced and in terrifying
fashion; for instance, from the son’s unstable, drug-taking girlfriend.
The tradition of UWG novels typically finds its Angstrom or Bascombe or Bolling or Wheeler at war with themselves, their own worst enemy. From the vantage of 2019, this seems beyond quaint, positively antique. While Jernigan, too, features this mode of contemplative self-destruction, there is also a prescient feeling of the world beginning to creep in at the edges, a sense of the white guy’s imminent fall from his placid, unhappy Eden.
While writing about the abiding appeal of one-word book titles here recently, I revisited an avatar of the breed, David Gates’ 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’ 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 courtesy of Triborough/Flickr
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
I used to be a monogamist. I honored that voice in my head that intoned “Thou shalt read just one book at a time” (it was the voice of my high school English teacher, Ms. Denize.) But something happened to me this summer – some unnoticed change took place – and now here I am reading no less than six books at once. Like juggling multiple girlfriends, it’s no easy task: I’m like a squirrel storing up nuts. I wonder if I might be preparing for a long winter of making love to War and Peace or something.In any case, here is the list of the books that currently lie unfinished at my bedside, in no particular order, along with some thoughts on each.Preston Falls by David Gates: My fellow Millionaire, Garth, introduced me to this book and its author. Who is this Gates? Apparently he’s a culture writer for Newsweek, a writing professor at Bennington, and a Pulitzer nominee for his first novel, Jernigan, back in 1991. Never has midlife crisis been so funny, or so extreme, as it is in Preston Falls. Gates goes deep between the ears of his two main characters, Willis and Jean, mining their thoughts for the plentiful deposits of self-defeatism, marital angst, parenting missteps, etc., that reside there. Like Willis’s ’74 Dodge pickup, his “hillbilly shitheap par excellence,” which he bought to show solidarity with the locals in their vacation town of Preston Falls (though they will always know he’s a poser), the wheels are coming off this cozy suburban family. It’s a car crash in slow motion but I can hardly turn away.Old School by Tobias Wolff: What can we say about Tobias Wolff? He’s like a wealthy benefactor, keeping us content with his avuncular offerings of solid prose. Set on the idyllic close of a New England prep school, Old School tracks the main character, an aspiring writer, through the evolution of his literary consciousness. In somewhat fantastic fashion, great writers visit the school in rapid succession. Robert Frost is followed, interestingly, by Ayn Rand, and the proclamations that issue from their mouths act as a sort of blueprint for writing, Frost in the affirmative, “‘Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stub-toe cry… You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry,'” Rand in the negative, “‘What you find in Hemingway is everything that is wrong with the so-called literature of this country. Weak premises. Weak defeated people.'” The narrator, formerly entranced by The Fountainhead, is shocked by the revelation of Rand’s naked misanthropy. Supposedly Hemingway, the boy’s hero, is on the way…Nick’s Trip by George P. Pelecanos: I had just moved and was lovingly establishing my modest library on its new shelves. I picked up this book, which I read years ago and which inspired me to consume the entire Pelecanos collection like a binging crime-noir junkie, and dove right in. With respect to Walter Mosely and Elmore Leonard, George P. is tops in my book. I’m from D.C., where his books take place, and thus biased. But for more evidence of Pelecanos’s prowess, travel up I-95 a short ways to Baltimore, where the HBO series The Wire is set. Pelecanos acts as writer and producer for the show, which Salon.com recently pitted against The Sopranos for the title of greatest T.V. show of all time.1776 by David McCullough: I thought a bit of non-fiction might go well with this smorgasbord. McCullough’s work is considered one of the finest and most accessible accounts of the Revolutionary War (and it did garner the author a Pulitzer). Patriots are cool, Lobster Backs suck, and George Washington? Fuhgeddaboudit; he’s the man. Currently I am reading about the Battle of Brooklyn, which constituted the first costly loss for the Continental Army, and is of particular interest to me because I live in Brooklyn and thus tread daily on the same ground as those soldiers. I wonder who wins in the end. Guess I’ll have to keep reading.Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson: Johnson’s new novel, Tree of Smoke, is getting major play right now, and so it was fortuitous that a friend lent me this little book, which is a collection of short stories, because I had never read him. Johnson’s approach is as subtle as a shotgun blast. The writing is spare, the language stark, the stories possessed of a simple, dark beauty. An admirer of Hubert Selby, Jr. and Leonard Michaels, I guess I’m predisposed to liking Denis Johnson too. The first story, “Car Crash,” is exceptional.Three Years by Anton Chekhov: I picked up The Complete Short Novels of Chekhov because I had never read him and often heard him described as the greatest writer of short fiction. Ever. I was drawn to this particular story, Three Years because of themes relating to love and happiness, or the lack thereof, but have so far found it to be less impressive than I expected. I appreciate Chekhov’s writing, the facility with words, the pacing of phrase and meticulous form, but something about the writing seems a bit clinical (Chekhov was, after all, a physician). Not stilted, but perhaps a bit dear:He again clutched the parasol to his breast and said softly, unexpectedly for himself, not recognizing his own voice: “If you would consent to be my wife, I’d give anything. I’d give anything… There’s no price, no sacrifice I wouldn’t go to.”She gave a start and looked at him in surprise and fear.”What are you saying!” she said, turning pale. “It’s impossible, I assure you. Forgive me.”Then quickly, with the same rustling of her dress, she went further up and disappeared through the door.This should be an emotional scene, but it struck me as a little bit hollow, and I’m hoping that the work of this titan of modern literature grows on me.So there you have it, quite a gathering of authors. It occurs to me that I need to round out this group with a female writer or two. Maybe Emily will lend me her copy of the new Harry Potter…