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