Garden State Blues: A Book Review

What follows is a final assignment for a seminar on contemporary English language novels that I took last semester. New Jersey's been on my mind lately, so I thought I'd share this for any fellow Jerseyites (-ians) or even non-Jerseyites (-ians) who might be interested.

State flag—who knew? (Wikimedia Commons)
Garden State Blues

“I live in New Jersey now, which always gets a bad rap here and there, but I must say— I enjoy living here, too” —Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon in a 2001 interview

* * *

            Of the fifteen most recent Pulitzer Prize-winning works of fiction c. 2012, one out of every five was set in New Jersey, tying it with New York City as the most popular setting for recent P.P.-winning works of fiction.[1] These three New Jersey novels were Independence Day (1996), by Richard Ford; American Pastoral (1998), by Philip Roth; and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008), by Junot Díaz. Of course, it’s not because these novels were set in New Jersey that they won Pulitzers. Who cares about New Jersey, anyway?
            Consider the following New Jersey-related superlatives: it’s the most densely populated state; it has the most diners; and, it has the most poorly labeled, confusing highways—not to mention the worst drivers, too. These data only confirm what most people already think about New Jersey: that as a place to live one’s life, it has just about no redeeming qualities.
            This isn’t entirely true, though, as any student of American history will tell you—in Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, Rutgers graduate Neil Klugman says that seeing the Newark Public Library  “always reminded me of New Jersey’s link with the beginning of the country, with George Washington, who had trained his scrappy army—a little bronze tablet informed us children—in the very park where I now sat.” New Jersey’s historic American ties paired with its contemporary regional unexceptionalism actually make it a surprisingly appropriate place for writers to reflect on America, a country which receives many of the same criticisms from non-Americans as NJ does from non-Jerseyites, like the inescapable mediocrity, the absence of culture or refinement, vulgarity. Despite their differences, Roth, Díaz, and Ford each write with an eye for the easily overlooked details that define the Garden State’s subtle but distinctive personality; in doing so, they reveal something about America, too.

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American Pastoral begins with nostalgia: a 15-page elegy about blue eyed, blonde-haired Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, a legendary Jewish-American athlete whose achievements at Weequahic High School in Newark during the ’40s mythologize him in the eyes of narrator Nathan Zuckerman and his fellow Newark Jews.
            The novel is structured in reference to another classic about human downfall, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and, like Milton’s epic, American Pastoral eschews a conventional chronological narrative. In Part I, “Paradise Remembered,” Zuckerman attends his 45th high school reunion shortly after meeting with the Swede to discuss the possibility of Zuckerman’s writing a book about the Swede’s recently deceased father; at the reunion, Zuckerman learns of the Swede’s recent passing, triggering his re-imagining of the life of the Swede, which are Parts II and III (“The Fall” and “Paradise Lost”). Through literary sleight of hand, Roth seamlessly transitions from fictional reality to fictional invention, assuming the voice of the narrator to the Swede’s life, including its early triumphs and later disasters, of which the central catastrophe is the mid-’60s bombing of a local post office by the Swede’s radical teenage daughter Merry, who then vanishes.

            Seen through the eyes of the Swede, a seemingly too-perfect ex-Marine, revered athlete, and family man who is yet humble enough to be widely relatable, the chaos of the ’60s becomes tangibly, uncomfortably proximate. Roth’s reconstruction of the picturesque American Dream and his ruthless dismantlement of that Dream is pitch perfect. After Merry bombs the local post office, which was also the local general store, the Swede dutifully attempts to go on with life by patronizing the store that replaces the previous one; Roth, however, prevents us from looking away from the Swede’s devastating psychological ruination:

That is the outer life. To the best of his ability, it is conducted just as it used to be. But now it is accompanied by an inner life, a gruesome inner life of tyrannical obsessions, stifled inclinations, superstitious expectations, horrible imaginings, fantasy conversations, unanswerable questions. Sleeplessness and self-castigation night after night. Enormous loneliness.

            Although largely set in the ’60s, American Pastoral also revisits early 20th-c. Newark, a classic American “melting pot” for immigrants like the Levovs. The Swede is determined to continue the family business—glove making—and keep their company Newark Maid in decrepit, riot-torn Newark—the city in which the Swede’s father and grandfather toiled, paying for the American Dream with blood, sweat, and the Protestant (that is, Jewish) work ethic. Early on, Roth writes, “People think of history in the long term, but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing.” This might well be the motto by which he renders his vision of New Jersey: a place where the past is inseparable from the present, where the American histories of immigrant success and failure have a constant presence, variously hindering and promoting the illusions of normalcy and happiness filtering the Swede’s perception of reality.
            Most convincingly, Roth conveys the sense of a distinctly American striving through the Levov tradition of glove making. The Swede’s father, Lou Levov, evokes an entire era of desperate, hardworking immigrants in his very manner of speech:

You didn’t know Sir Walter Scott was the son of a glover? You know who else, aside from Sir Walter and my two sons? William Shakespeare. Father was a glover who couldn’t read and write his own name. You know what Romeo says to Juliet when she’s up on the balcony? Everybody knows ‘Romeo, Romeo, where are you, Romeo’—that she says. But what does Romeo say?

Prolixity is par for the course here, but Roth can’t be blamed for authentically recreating folks like Lou, who are longwinded grandparents as much as cultural historians:

 I started in a tannery when I was thirteen, but I can answer for you because of my friend Al Haberman, who since has passed away, unfortunately. Seventy-three years old, he came out of his house, slipped on the ice, and broke his neck. Terrible. He told me this. Romeo says, ‘See the way she leans her cheek on her hand? I only wish I was the glove on that hand so I could touch that cheek.’ Shakespeare. Most famous author in history.

Roth’s tale of an American dream-turned-nightmare is packed with lengthy historical digressions and reminiscences, but these historical meanderings define the narrative experience of his novel—the sense of characters operating in and against the terribly indifferent world that seems bested captured in the bland, benign American-ness of post-war New Jersey. In a way, New Jersey becomes an Americanized Swann’s way, where history and memories exist as their own compelling reality; Roth writes, “…each of us remembers and forgets in a pattern whose labyrinthine windings are an identification mark no less distinctive than a fingerprint.” In creating the mythology of the Swede and all of the New Jersey history that comes with it, Roth presents a typical American history of immigrant experience that is atypical in its extraordinary realism and emotional poignancy. Even the Swede’s nickname acquires a reality of its own as the “invisible passport” that he carries to the end of his days, “all the while wandering deeper and deeper into an American’s life.”

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The New Jersey of Richard Ford’s 1986 novel The Sportswriter—whose sequel Independence Day won the Pulitzer a decade later—avoids the urban immigrant experience and instead focuses on the state’s archetypal American suburbia: one of the classic American settings whose salient characteristics—conformity, loneliness, quietude—are essentialized in New Jersey. Ford writes: 

It is like looking out an airplane window and finding the earth has disappeared. No loneliness can compete with that. And New Jersey, muted and adaptable, is the perfect landscape for that very loneliness, its other pleasures not withstanding. Michigan comes close, with its long, sad vistas, its desolate sunsets over squatty frame houses, second-growth forests, flat interstates and dog-eared towns like Dowagiac and Munising. But only close. New Jersey’s is the purest loneliness of all.

For all its loneliness, New Jersey is an ideal place for Frank Bascombe, a 38-year-old failed-novelist-turned-sportswriter who is emotionally aloof and unable to achieve any significant career-related or personal success, but doesn’t mind at all. Bascombe lives in the quaint town of Haddam, and, as in American Pastoral, his story proceeds in two primary modes: the present, in which Bascombe continues dating a nurse named Vicki while interacting with various individuals for professional and personal reasons, including Herb Wallagher, a crippled ex-professional football player about whom Bascombe is writing a profile, and Walter Luckett, a troubled Harvard Business School graduate and investment banker whom Frank meets through a local “Divorced Men’s Club.” The other mode is that of the past: we see glimpses of Walter’s deteriorating relationship with his ex-wife, whom he refers to only as “X,” and his failure to come to terms with the death of his oldest son, Ralph, from cancer a few years earlier.
            Ford’s prose is eerily muted but haunting; Bascombe’s first-person commentary strongly recalls another writer’s similarly blithe, existentially indifferent voice—Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer (1961), which might be considered a Louisianan precursor to Bascombe and his introspective suburban wanderings. At times, Ford runs the risk of sounding a touch too elegiac about lost happiness and paradises lost, but his ear for understated description is remarkable: in describing Bascombe’s feelings towards the dissolution of his marriage, Ford writes that it is “…a sadness that does not feel sad. It is the way you feel at a high school reunion when you hear an old song you used to like played late at night, only you are all alone.”
            The hazy, dream-like mood that Ford conjures is fitting for the New Jersey that Bascombe inhabits: a suburban sanctuary where one is content to live out the remainder of one’s short, lonely life. Ford writes, ““Better to come to earth in New Jersey than not come at all. Or worse, to come to your senses in some spectral place like Colorado or California, or to remain up in the dubious airs searching for some right place that never existed and never will. Stop searching. Face the earth where you can.” Death and loss strip away any sentimentality Bascombe might have once had, and this differentiates Ford’s humble, unidealized New Jersey from Roth’s sepia-tinged American idyll.
            The Sportswriter is also a study of American suburban life’s small, profoundly affecting moments, like a brief but touchingly innocent conversation between Bascombe and a bored, young carhop he meets at the time of night when only a few lone souls roam the highway. These experiences are typical of Ford’s America, where people are generally friendly but also generally lonely. Through the eyes of Bascombe, New Jersey becomes a place that is as ordinarily, boringly American as anywhere else, but is also perfectly content to stay like that. Bascombe cheerfully, or perhaps ironically, declares, “Indeed, in its homeliest precincts and turn-outs, the state feels as unpretentious as Cape Cod once might’ve, and its bustling suburban-with-good-neighbor-industry mix of life makes it the quintessence of the town-and-country spirit. Illusion will never be your adversary here.” Illusions are the dark side of nostalgia, but Ford presents a New Jersey that is not nostalgia, but reality—the portrait of a mid-’80s crisis of middle age which, to his credit, rings true.

* * *

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was published a decade after American Pastoral and two decades after The Sportswriter, begins not in New Jersey or America, but in the Dominican Republic. From the D.R. comes the fukú, a curse that, “like Darkseid’s Omega Effect, like Morgoth’s bane, no matter how many turns and digressions this shit might take, it always—and I mean always—gets its man.”
            Oscar ‘Wao’ de Léon is this man. An overweight sci-fi nerd, Oscar, the son of Dominican immigrants, struggles during the early ’80s to fit in at Don Bosco, an all-boys Catholic high school in North Jersey. As the narrator Yunior, an ex-boyfriend of Oscar’s older sister Lola, explains, “Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.” Oscar lives with his cancer-stricken mother, Belicia Cabral, and his sister Lola in the dismal city of Paterson—like Newark, another dying urban center (which William Carlos Williams immortalized in his five-book poem “Paterson”).[2] Neither Oscar nor Lola want to stay in Paterson if they can help it, and after the first section ends with Oscar’s underwhelming graduation and matriculation to Rutgers, New Brunswick, the narrative shifts to revisit the early ’80s through the eyes of Lola, who temporarily escapes to the Jersey Shore with a 19-year-old boy, but eventually returns home after growing disillusioned: “It was the stupidest thing I ever did. I was miserable. And so bored. But of course I wouldn’t admit it. I had run away, so I was happy! Happy!”
Díaz draws back the curtain of history to show how the family is tied together by its misfortunes: the struggles of Oscar are contrasted with those of his mother Belicia as a young, ravishing woman in the D.R., then ruled by the mythically tyrannical El Jefe, a.k.a., Rafael Trujillo. Oscar’s years at Rutgers fly miserably by as told by Yunior, a womanizing hulk who deigns to live with Oscar partially out of a desire to ingratiate himself with Lola, and partially as a result of an unfortunate housing lottery pick; we also get a glimpse into the unfortunate fate of Dr. Abelard, Oscar’s maternal grandfather, whose brilliant career is derailed by a beautiful daughter and the predatory eye of Trujillo. Along the way, Díaz punctuates his caffeinated prose with myth-like explications of the cult of Trujillo and Dominican superstition, as well as amusing, wide-ranging references from comic books, sci-fi, and anime.
            Unlike Roth or Ford, Díaz doesn’t describe New Jersey as a mirror to mainstream suburban or urban America; instead, Díaz, who grew up in the state, cleverly employs New Jersey as a mirror to the marginalized in America—like what New Jersey is to most non-Jerseyites. Despite their substantial geographical and cultural differences, New Jersey and the Dominican Republic function symbolically as parallel worlds; the juxtaposition of the two throughout the novel is surprisingly resonant with the sense of alienation and the struggle to assimilate that inform the experiences of Díaz’s characters. Díaz himself has noted how New Jersey’s marginalization in relation to New York City and Philadelphia is surprisingly similar to that of an undeveloped Third-World country in relation to nearby developed nations; he made this point with characteristic concision during a recent talk at Harvard: “Santa Domingo, where I’m from, is 60 miles from the US, but who the fuck knows anything about Santa Domingo?”
            At the same talk, Díaz also commented on New Jersey’s strange role in American culture as an emblem of marginalization: “There are many places in New Jersey where you can see New York City. You might only be a mile away, but you might as well not exist.” Oscar knows this feeling better than anyone when he falls in love for the first time with a girl named Ana; Oscar doesn’t get what he yearns for, though: “Without even realizing it he’d fallen into one of those Let’s-Be-Friends Vortexes, the bane of nerdboys everywhere.” When they hang out, Oscar and Ana appropriately have their “just-friends” moments sitting before a view of the Manhattan skyline. In these scenes, heartbroken Oscar is the New Jersey to Ana’s New York; although she might be sitting close to Oscar, to him, she might as well be a million miles away.
            Although Díaz’s novel isn’t focused on American suburbia or about the cultural melting pot, his New Jersey still explores the same basic issue of Roth and Ford’s novels: what it means to be an American, specifically in relation to an overwhelming, formless American culture that isn’t always friendly to those who don’t fit any conventional mold. Ultimately (and paradoxically), the very lack of a fixed identity is New Jersey’s greatest asset because it enables writers like Ford, Díaz, and Roth to transform the New Jersey nowhere into an American everywhere: an everywhere that captures the loneliness, the purposelessness, and the desire to escape which resonate universally—even more so than the perennial land of urban disillusionment, New York City. At the end of the day, the lonely folks in New York still live in the biggest, most exciting place in the world; the lonely people in New Jersey—well, they might as well not exist.

[1] Of these 15, three novels were primarily set in NJ and three in NYC (Martin Dressler, The Hours, and the Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Kay). Maine had two (Empire Falls and Olive Kittredge); Virginia, two (March and The Known World); Massachusetts, one (Tinkers); the remainder either had no defined setting (The Road) or were short story collections or novels without a single primary setting.
[2] Interestingly, William Carlos Williams was also the pediatrician of New Jersey artist Robert Smithson, whose work and writings on New Jersey and the concept of “elsewhere” has been cited as a major influence by Díaz himself; in Oscar Wao, Díaz briefly pays homage to Smithson, writing of “…a particularly Jersey malaise—the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.”