Irina Reyn is a fiction and nonfiction writer who divides her time between Pittsburgh and Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in anthologies and publications such as The Forward, San Francisco Chronicle, The Moscow Times, Nextbook and Post Road. Born in Moscow, Irina was raised in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.
Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take On the Garden Stateby Irina Reyn
Mobsters. Big hair. The smelly Turnpike. The poor cousin of its glittering neighbor Manhattan. Could that really be all there is to New Jersey? In Living on the Edge of the World, the best and brightest young writers from the much maligned state answer back with edgy, irreverent pieces of nonfiction paying tribute to New Jersey's unique place/i>/b>/big>… See more details below
Mobsters. Big hair. The smelly Turnpike. The poor cousin of its glittering neighbor Manhattan. Could that really be all there is to New Jersey? In Living on the Edge of the World, the best and brightest young writers from the much maligned state answer back with edgy, irreverent pieces of nonfiction paying tribute to New Jersey's unique place in the cultural consciousness.
Like a drive along the Garden State Parkway, their stories travel to just about every corner of the state, from Princeton and Hillside to Camden and Hoboken. In "Straight Outta Garwood," Tom Perrotta writes of the near inescapability of returning to his home state again and again in his novels; in "Exit 15W," Joshua Braff tells how all roads led back to the Jersey Girl he'd fallen for as a seventh-grader; Kathleen DeMarco takes a nostalgic look at her grandfather's cranberry bog in "The Family Farm"; Jonathan Ames recounts a failed attempt to consummate his flirtation with a boardwalk beauty in "Rose of the Jersey Shore"; and Frederick Reiken offers an elegy to a high-rise in Fort Lee that opens his eyes to a new, dangerous world.
A celebration of all that's weird and wonderful about the Garden State -- including Bruce Springsteen, the Nets, the Jersey Devil, the films of Kevin Smith, and Great Adventure -- Living on the Edge of the World will have New Jerseyans everywhere ready to stand and be counted.
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When I was seven years old, my parents and I emigrated from Moscow to Flatbush, Brooklyn. Two years later, just as I gained some confidence with the English language and began to grasp the geography of our new neighborhood, we relocated to Rego Park, Queens, where I began yet another elementary school. When I was almost fifteen, with one year at Forest Hills High School behind me, my parents announced that the three of us would be moving again -- this time to Fair Lawn, New Jersey -- so my father could start his own private medical practice. In my diary of that next major period of transition, I scribbled, "There's something missing in my life that keeps me from being thoroughly happy. I think it lies in New Jersey."
Looking back on that diary entry now, it seems like the initial spark for Living on the Edge of the World: the first tentative steps toward imagining a literary New Jersey. This is the New Jersey I have strived to realize in this collection by collaborating with the writers gathered in these pages. But back then, I was exhausted from moving. I was longing for a place to rest, a safe place to discover myself. The anonymity of cities was all I knew, and my curiosity about the suburbs was fueled by powerful images from television. In the suburbs, I would have a shot at that elusive idyllic childhood, complete with a mother in the kitchen dispensing Oreos and Kool-Aid after impromptu soccer matches in the backyard with friends. I would be able to let myself into a friend's house without even having to knock, the cupboards -- and all their decadent, artificially flavored contents -- available to me any time of day.
The dreams were simple, naive, almost regressive, an attempt to recapture a childhood I never had. Mainly, though, I was drawn to the stability of those suburban images: houses lived in throughout entire lifetimes, no switching of schools, no packing up of apartments, no learning of a new language, no painstaking process of turning strangers into friends. What I was searching for in New Jersey was the impossible: a perfectly cohesive sense of home.
The New Jersey I discovered had little in common with my suburban fantasies. The first year in New Jersey was almost as much of a culture shock as my first years in the United States. I was bewildered by malls, by their mysterious lack of function, where you went not to shop but simply to walk around in aimless circles, to see and be seen. I didn't know what to make of the genre of slicked-back student referred to by others as the "Guido" -- with the fuzzy dice hanging from his car's rearview mirror, the lights around the license plate flashing, the car bopping up and down to Z100 at red lights. Diners, although off-putting at first for their gaudy, downscale Art Deco furnishings and indifferent service, became a comforting, reliable dispenser of late-night coffee, rice pudding, cheese sticks, and cherry pie (heated, of course, and with ice cream). In New Jersey, it seemed, I was an immigrant all over again.
I found nighttime in Fair Lawn silent and eerie and was convinced I smelled toxic waste everywhere (a city girl not realizing that the scent was actually emanating from skunks rather than the New Jersey equivalent of Chernobyl). Other than the twenty-four-hour CVS, a diner or two, a Friendly's, and a Baskin-Robbins, there was little of interest in walking distance. I missed apartment buildings, with their noises, their smells, the palpable proximity of other human bodies. As the paint dried, as the new furniture began to occupy the space it still does to this day, I yearned to tell my parents they had made a mistake.
But time passed, and like it or not, I was maturing in New Jersey. It was in Fair Lawn where I experienced my first boyfriend (and lost him to another girl three months later), where I learned to drive (and backed the car into the tree adjoining our driveway my first day behind the wheel). Where I discovered acting in school plays (but not yet the fact that I was a terrible actress). Where I watched my father attain the goals a Jewish man could never have realized in Russia, including the establishment of a flourishing private practice. Where I honed my skills of observation, edging closer to becoming a writer.
Another major event occurred in our household, a year before I left Fair Lawn for college -- my parents gave birth to my sister, Elizabeth. Now, sixteen years later, she is as old as I was when I moved to Fair Lawn. She has lived in the same house since she was born and has the same group of friends she had since she was a toddler. She is the real deal, a bona fide New Jerseyan.
Buying the Fair Lawn house was my parents' biggest investment in America, so my own immigrant guilt narrowed my choices for higher education to a single school: Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. With its central campus located in New Brunswick, an hour south of Fair Lawn, Rutgers attracted primarily in-state students. Many Rutgers students were thrilled to be attending the school, but there were others who felt they had few choices about where to go to college or had hoped to get out of New Jersey but resigned themselves to the low tuition and high-quality education Rutgers offered. It was there, in the River dorms, the classrooms, while strolling the green esplanade of Voorhees Mall, or over a "Mexican Cantina" dinner in the cavernous dining hall, that I met people from all over the state. Eventually, my understanding of New Jersey widened; Rutgers is where I learned about the state's diversity, its regional personalities, its multicultural communities.
"What's your exit?" I was asked again and again by students seeking to understand me, to draw conclusions about me from the magical number that would summarize my background. So I learned to explain myself by my exit off the New Jersey Turnpike (18W) and Garden State Parkway (156), but of course it was hardly my entire story. It was at Rutgers where I first realized that many New Jerseyans had a sheepish relation to their own state; when asked by outsiders where they were from, some of the students said they hailed from "the New York area" or perhaps just "New York." For me it was even more complicated. I was a Russian Jew who lived in New York and New Jersey -- Moscow straddling both sides of the Hudson.
This fractured identity allowed me a view of New Jersey that spurred the creation of this book. My loyalties being divided, I was able to examine the state from without and within. What I eventually found was something much more familiar than what I originally confronted in the back of a Fair Lawn High School classroom, lost in the mist of Aqua Net, intimidated by the girls' hazardously long fingernails, their pleated Z. Cavaricci pants. What I discovered after some time and distance was a state I could relate to, a state whose self-regard was as confusing as my own.
If I started to recognize myself in New Jersey, then I've also had the opportunity to see New Jersey become like me. In the years since my parents moved to Fair Lawn, the town's population has changed -- the Russians have moved in. The town now has three Russian supermarkets, and across the street from the largest of these is a Russian pharmacy that imports products from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Warsaw.
In the heart of the town, the local video store stocks tapes of Russian movies that never received U.S. distribution. Just a few blocks away, on Fair Lawn Avenue, a former Lions Club has been transformed into an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, where the services are conducted entirely in Russian. And just minutes away by car are at least two sprawling Rus-sian restaurants, where families celebrate weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries, where they dance, make vodka toasts, and eat grilled shashlik. Fair Lawn has become dear to me over the years, finally taking shape as the first place I've known that resembles home.
Since New Jersey is the place where I experienced my first glimmers of true self-recognition, it is the place that will always fascinate me, with its mass of contradictions I am still trying to untangle. New Jersey may be the nation's punching bag, the butt of countless jokes, yet the density of its population makes it a unique world of its own (at approximately 1,165 people per square mile, it is more densely populated than any other state). New Jersey's per capita income is the second highest in the country, and it can be considered one of our most ethnically diverse states. Strangely enough, none of these statistics staunches the flow of Jersey jokes.
New Jersey's role in movies and other forms of popular culture suggests that the country has an emotional investment in perpetuating the state's browbeaten reputation, as though New Jersey were the hidden self we want to degrade and protect, simultaneously. I was reminded of this while watching Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality, where the actress plays an undercover FBI agent who enters a Miss America-type beauty pageant. The fact that Bullock's initially unglamorous and hilariously klutzy Gracie Hart enrolls in the contest as Miss New Jersey is no coincidence. What could be a funnier state than New Jersey? At the same time, what state could be more authentic? Gracie Hart, after all, is the only "real" person in a pageant extolling artificiality, whose kindness and common sense the contestants from other states come to depend upon. Perhaps that is part of New Jersey's responsibility -- to act as the underdog the country jeers but privately longs to root for. We want to believe that even when you dress up New Jersey, its grittiness will always shine through -- for better and for worse. This is the double-edged myth that exerts such a powerful hold on our national psyche.
Still, the Garden State's most complicated relationship remains with its larger-than-life neighbor to the east, and, like the less-favored sibling, its feelings about New York City are multifaceted -- ambivalent, fiercely proud, insecure, somewhat defensive. Like me, New Jersey embodies a kind of placelessness, a spiritual disconnection from itself, its identity constantly in question. (A case in point was the recent search for a state slogan. The governor discarded an out-of-state public relations firm's suggestion, "New Jersey: We'll Win You Over," for the more optimistic "New Jersey: See for Yourself." Now even this slogan has been eliminated for its lack of originality.) Yet hasn't there always been something valuable about being on the margins, forced to monitor the center from a self-conscious distance? Perhaps one might even imagine such a vantage point as a literary one.
Since college, I have tried to grasp the essence of New Jersey by immersing myself in contemporary Jersey culture. I bought albums by Bruce Springsteen, then Bon Jovi, then Fountains of Wayne, then My Chemical Romance. I watched a miniboom of films set in New Jersey, including Jersey Girl, Garden State, and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. I tuned in to The Sopranos. I eagerly followed the evolution of the Weird N.J. 'zine, with its accounts of uncanny roadside attractions, outlandish architectural landmarks, and all other kinds of bizarre Jersey phenomena. Weird N.J. has since grown into a franchise and book series that is sold across the country, showing how the quirkiness of the Garden State can apparently lend itself to larger, even national, meanings.
Alongside the music, films, and magazines that identified themselves with New Jersey, I also became aware of contemporary writers mining New Jersey as a rich subject for their books. New Jersey writing has a long history of its own, with William Carlos Williams, Robert Pinsky, Philip Roth, Richard Ford, Alicia Ostriker, and Amiri Baraka among its literary lions, but all around me, a new generation of writers was drawing its inspiration from the Garden State. I have invited them to lend their voices to this nonfiction collection, and the result is a variety of different New Jerseys, each filtered through singular experiences in the Garden State. At the same time, though, the authors share certain themes that illuminate one another and show us what it means to live in New Jersey.
This collection includes stories of unexpected discovery, of finding meaning in unlikely places. Joshua Braff writes about running into his high school crush later in life, and he finds in her a mesmerizing, grown-up version of the Jersey Girl of his youth. David Roth discovers a different love, a borderline criminal passion for the then-beleaguered New Jersey Nets. Elizabeth Keenan uncovers something much more frightening just weeks before the death of her best friend -- the possibility of an actual encounter with the mythical Jersey Devil.
Almost all of the writers grew up in New Jersey, so it should be no surprise that the book features tales of awkward, transcendent adolescent sex. Jonathan Ames's teenage Jersey shore fantasy slips away within inches of his grasp -- or does it? Askold Melnyczuk recalls becoming both a student and a teacher of sex in a Cranford quasi-triple-decker house stuffed with Ukrainian immigrants.
There are stories of New Jersey as threatening and dangerous. Frederick Reiken confronts a mobster's son in Fort Lee. James Kaplan finds himself drawn to the suicide of the West Orange mobster Longy Zwillman. Gaiutra Bahadur's family of Guyanese immigrants lives in fear of being targeted by the "Dotbusters," a racist gang intent on driving the Indian community out of Jersey City. Dani Shapiro's Orthodox Jewish family also receives a chilly reception in Hillside circa 1963.
Aching loss permeates a number of these essays. Kathleen DeMarco's family is forced to sell their beloved cranberry farm in Hammonton. Caren Lissner copes with the end of her parents' marriage by living in a car and working at the Jackson amusement park Great Adventure.
Some authors who tried hard to get out of New Jersey found that it haunted their work. Lucinda Rosenfeld, Tom Perrotta, and Cathi Hanauer all came to realize from afar that New Jersey offers the most resonant and recurring setting for their fiction. Adam Lowenstein left his hometown to become a professor of film studies but finds himself fascinated by New Jersey cinema.
And then there are tales of coming home. Christian Bauman recounts the pleasure of a daily commute on the PATH train between New York and Hoboken. Caroline Leavitt copes with the public disapproval of her new neighbors, longtime Hoboken residents wary of infiltration by Manhattan refugees in search of cheaper housing. And there is Lauren Grodstein, a prodigal daughter who leaves Haworth only to return to New Jersey as a professor at Rutgers University's Camden campus.
As we traverse this literary version of the New Jersey Turnpike, through the eighteen "exits" that form the chapters of this anthology, each story paints a dynamic and complex picture of New Jersey as both state and state of mind. The essays move beyond outsiders' knee-jerk assumptions about a state glimpsed from the windows of cars and trains leaving Newark Liberty International Airport on their way to somewhere else. These writers reckon with the commodification, disdain, and disregard attached to New Jersey, but they are ultimately interested in something far more intimate, something truly lived.
Living on the Edge of the World is not meant to be a simple rallying cry of a book, a manifesto determined to convince the reader why New Jersey matters. In fact, the author biographies included in this volume reveal that only three of the contributors currently live in New Jersey. This calls to mind a story a friend of mine once told me. Born and raised in New Jersey, he went away to college out of state and introduced himself to his new roommate, who hailed from Colorado. He expected the usual "armpit-of-America" response once he informed him where he had grown up, but his roommate surprised him. He said, "You know why they call it the Garden State, don't you? It's like the Garden of Eden -- everyone is from there originally, but no one you meet actually lives there anymore." The mythic observation of this story seems to hover over Living on the Edge of the World.
No one book could possibly hope to cover all of New Jersey's unique places, people, and communities -- I wish I could have included essays on Atlantic City, Asbury Park, Cape May, Newark, Paterson, Trenton, or any number of other notable locales. I would have liked to publish more writers from New Jersey's myriad ethnic communities. I would have loved to come across a meditation on Jon Bon Jovi's hair. Nevertheless, I hope this book captures the spirit of the state as it brings together the very best in contemporary New Jersey writing.
No essay in this book focuses entirely on Bruce Springsteen (although he does surface in some of the contributors' essays), but the title of this collection speaks to the pervasive influence his work has had for the state of New Jersey. For me, no song captures the Garden State's essence of hope and desolation (as stubbornly local as it is universal) better than Springsteen's "Living on the Edge of the World," with its passionate, desperate narrator crisscrossing the highways of New Jersey:
New Jersey in the morning like a lunar landscape.
Radio, radio, hear my tale of heartbreak
New Jersey in the morning like a lunar landscape.
When I wrote that diary entry as a girl in New York City days before moving to New Jersey, I thought I would find my home on the other side of the Hudson River. That did not happen the way I envisioned it, but what I found there instead was a home within my homelessness. The "edge of the world," it seems, turned out to be more essential, more invigorating than any center could have been.
So I hope this collection speaks to the reader's own experiences of living on the edge of the world, no matter where you come from.
Fair Lawn, New Jersey,
and Brooklyn, New York, 2005-2006
Copyright © 2007 by Irina Reyn
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