Early December; snow accumulating on the nose of the jet outside the window. Newark Airport. Too agitated to read, too distracted to eat the muffin I’m about to toss in the trash, I wander about the terminal, looking for something to distract me from the list of cancelled flights on the loudspeaker. And then I find it, off an alcove, beneath an escalator across from Starbucks. A little shop: JERSEY!—with an exclamation point. I’m beside myself: maybe they’ll have another T-shirt to add to my collection. I scan the inventory: a foot-long model of Barnegat Light; a postcard book featuring the Taj Mahal, Sands, and Harrah’s casinos; tot-sized T-shirts with the phrase SOMEONE FROM NEW JERSEY LOVES ME scrawled in mock-Crayola; and a prominent display of Sopranos-related merchandise, including cookbooks; Joe Pantaliano’s memoir, and black Bada Bing! caps. My enthusiasm atomizes. Is that because I’m not sure what any of it’s supposed to communicate? What do these things have to do with one another? On one hand the wearing of a basic New Jersey T-shirt might be the sartorial equivalent of a raised brow, a gentle nudge in the liver. On the other, I might be performing volunteer PR work, in the hopes that others might take a moment to reassess my home state’s reputation as a punch line. Of course it might also mean that I’m secure enough in my own identity not to care whether someone might think I have clunky pine furniture in my great room and a closet full of clothes from Today’s Man.
And then there’s that Sopranos reference—maybe it’s just a covert way of saying I’m another fan. I rummage through the T-shirts only to find sky blue, pale lavender, and melon represented. That seals it: If New Jersey is a color, it’s definitely not a pastel. Connecticut? Litchfield County? Now that’s pastel.
Stephen Dunn, A.R. Ammons, Lynda Hull, Junot Diaz, Robert Pinsky, Gerald Stern, Richard Price, Todd Solondz, Agnes Rossi, Gary Krist, Lisa Zeidner, Frederick Reiken, David Groff, Denise Gess, Tom DeHaven, Susanne Antonetta, Kathy Graber, Gregory Pardlo, Bret Harte, James Fenimore Cooper, Stephen Crane, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsburg. What does this litany mean? Sure we all share a love for grit; we’re not afraid of muddying our hands, but one could probably say that about any group of writers. If we made a list of Minnesota-based writers, would we be more likely to identify common themes, attitudes, tones? Maybe our lack of coherence is admirable; our variety tells us more about the culture of New Jersey than we can say.
My New Jersey
My New Jersey is the coastal plain. That’s not to cast judgment upon the counties to the North. Like many who grow up in New Jersey, my family confined our daytrips to certain locales. North Jersey? We wouldn’t think of exploring North Jersey. Maybe this is our way to keep our home state mysterious and ultimately unknowable, for if we had a truer sense of its geographic limits, we’d feel constricted. To our minds, New Jersey was as vast as India.
So South Jersey is the landscape in which much of my writing lives, despite the fact that I spend most of the year in Manhattan. It’s a place where all the rocks are imported. No real hill in sight, despite those misleading names: Mount Laurel, Mount Holly, Mount Ephraim. It’s as flat as the Netherlands. Dig a hole for a tree, and it’s sand, pure sand: damp golden sugar. A clump of it falls apart in your hand. Unless you’re closer to the shore, past the pinelands, where it’s marsh. Or fill: silt sucked from the bottom of the bay. It’s unstable, in flux. No hard divide between the land and the sea. A place where Northeasters carry out the recently replenished beaches, or geyser up through the storm drains, flooding the pebbled yards of the summer houses constructed a few feet above sea level. Certainly their owners know that none are built to last, but there must be some subversive thrill in knowing they’ve cheated nature one more year. As A.R. Ammons says, in “Dunes,” one of his many poems set at the Jersey Shore: “Firm ground is not available ground.”
Atop my shifting landscape, there’s the bewildering social world of New Jersey, which strikes me as among the most stratified in the nation. If you ever have the chance to drive down the 130-mile sandbar of the New Jersey coastline you’ll see what I’m talking about. Start with Deal, where wealthy Sephardic Jews live on large landscaped lots, in mansions that look like they’re right out of Belair, then proceed toward the more restrained, old-fashioned white colonials of Allenhurst and Loch Arbour. Two more turns, cross the bridge over the lake, and you’re deep inside the shorefront blight of Asbury Park, with its rusty unfinished high-rise and its octagonal Howard Johnson’s on the boardwalk, a place whose chief function these days—in spite of much bandied-about plans for redevelopment—is a filmmaker’s metaphor for desolation and lost optimism. So much cultural variation within the span of two miles! But that’s only a microcosm of the state. Working class Italians in Belmawr, upwardly mobile Italians in Voorhees; South Asians in Somerville, Dominicans in Edison Townships. In Cherry Hill, for instance, where I grew up, I knew early on that any person with “good, educated” taste would not be caught dead in one of the mock chateaus of splashy Point of Woods. Instead, he’d live across Route 70 in understated Wexford Leas with its wood, earth-tone siding and idiosyncratic street names, which were entirely British in character, but determinedly not shopworn: Lavenham, Buxton, Ashford, Dunbarton. Simply put, each development, like each township they were a part of, had its own particular meaning. I’m not at all arguing that this kind of stratification is peculiar to New Jersey; it’s a mark of how we live in the hybridized America of the 21st century. But in the most densely populated state, the lines drawn seem to be sharper, more apparent, because there are so many of them.
So if I’m struggling to enact a vision in my fiction about South and Central New Jersey, it’s this: the collision between an unstable landscape and a stratified social environment.
A literary gathering in South Jersey. A smart young woman, a poet, grabs me by the elbow, as I’m getting ready to leave, and asks, “How did you get out?” Entirely earnest, as if South Jersey were Appalachia.
Long Island, Rhode Island, Staten Island: all places that share, more or less, New Jersey’s C-List status. Any coincidence that such places have long been known for their large concentrations of people from Southern and Eastern European traditions? Why, as suggested by a recent article in The New York Times, do new immigrants flock to Jersey City and Fort Lee rather than to Greenwich and Stamford?
If I’m attempting to write a literature about New Jersey, how do I use the signifiers of the place so that they have value to someone from the Pacific Northwest? How to say “Barnegat Light” or “Moorestown Mall” or “Cape May Diamonds” or “Jersey Devil” and know that they’re not going to mean the same to every reader? And more importantly, how to transcend the limitations of regional literature, so much of which seems to have an enclosed, specialized audience?
As the suburban landscape of the United States looks more and more alike, with the same strip malls and fenced retention basins, I couldn’t be more compelled by literature that still attempts to capture the quirks of a particular region. I want to know, for instance, what the pollen looks like on the hoods of the cars at the onset of March in North Carolina; I’m interested in hearing about the rich red soil inside a Southerner’s shovel. But the mere representation of a region is certainly not enough to engage me over the long haul. It seems to me that the terms of landscape need to be subordinate to larger issues if we’re to write work that escapes its time and place. The particular quality by which a character sees the pygmy pines as she’s driving through the Pine Barrens is of more interest to me than the trees. Her description represents her inner life; it conveys the ambiguities of her emotional state at that moment in time. I don’t read x’s poem, for instance, so much because I care about the facts of place – I would go to a guidebook or a history for that – but for how that particular consciousness constructs an identity in the face of mortality. Or more specifically, how it uses the terms of the landscape (in interaction with the writer’s senses) to enact the ongoing drama of perception. Landscape, regionality—they’re part of the writer’s toolbox. What is a body? What is a self? What is time, death, love? The mysteries of attachment and loss: Those are the issues that turn over the engine of the work I like.
“But you love New Jersey,” says Mark, my partner, a few hours after reading the first draft of this piece.
“No,” he says, more emphatically. “It’s not just your toolbox. It’s not just a vehicle for your perception.”
We’re walking down Seventh Avenue toward our favorite Indian restaurant on Bleecker. I think he’s afraid I’m going to suggest we take our aging retriever to the beach this weekend under the guise of seeking out points of interest from my childhood. Not that I haven’t tried such things before. “All right, but I’d never want to live there again.”
His eyes look bluer in the dark. I think he entirely believes me when I say I want us to spend our twilight years in a waterfront rancher with a boat docked out back in an Ocean County lagoon development. I don’t know what to do. If he doesn’t understand my complex relationship to the place, then who will?
The back of my neck feels hot and raw, as if sunburnt.
A few blocks to the West, the lights of New Jersey – that sodium vapor yellow – shimmer on the still, black water of the Hudson.
And just as I’m about to cite an example in my defense, a sports car sweeps around the corner onto West 12th, nearly knocking us down in the crosswalk. We freeze. From the corner of my eye I catch the cream-colored license plate. “Go back to New Jersey!” I yell, but the driver’s already halfway down the block, bass line thumping from his stereo.
Two people from my high school: Jennifer DeSisto, Nathaniel Cohen. One certain she’d be a performer, as influential and loved as Edith Piaf, the other determined to be a world-class plastic surgeon, openly sketching operations in the back pages of a spiral-bound notebook during discussions of The Miller’s Tale. Neither tethered to the weights of history, tradition, and good taste. Says Stephen Dunn, in “Tolstoy in South Jersey”: “South Jersey, he discovered, was a realm/of the yet-to-be-created.” Does it matter that many of my former classmates now live in the same developments in which they once waited for the schoolbus at 7:30 AM? Not really: Anything was possible. Jennifer DeSisto, Nathaniel Cohen: where are you now?
Saturday morning: the checkout line of the Staples on Sixth Avenue and 22nd. For a second longer than I find exactly comfortable, the cashier fixes her attention on my T-shirt. NEW JERSEY: ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE. All throughout the day on the street people have been reacting to my shirt, usually with a conspiratorial half-smile that I don’t find at all unfriendly. Still, it’s a look I find a little hard to read.
“You’ve been there?” she says warily.
“I know people who’ve gone to New Jersey and never come out alive.”
She’s no wimp herself, with her brawny, thick fingers and her South Bronx accent. She slides my envelopes into a white plastic bag, without a trace of irony in her expression.
“It’s deadly,” I say, finally, folding my arms across my chest.
And she’s impressed.