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From Barnes & NobleA Moon for the Misbegotten
Frederick Reiken's fine second novel, The Lost Legends of New Jersey, introduces us to Anthony Rubin, a teenager who spends the summer of 1979 on the boardwalks of the Jersey shore, "midget wrestling" with his friends and walking through the songs of Bruce Springsteen. When his father, Michael, begins an affair with Claudia Berkowitz, however, this idyllic life implodes.
Soon, Anthony's mother, Jess, is throwing rocks at the Berkowitz's house, then driving across their lawn, leaving deep, circular ruts. Jess's emotions have long been unsteady, and this new crisis, even when the affair ends, exacerbates her wild behavior. "My father had to make a choice," Anthony says, "Be confused or try to love her. For a while he tried to love her."
The Rubin family's fragmentation is mirrored by that of the narrative's structure, and herein lies the novel's greatest strengths and weaknesses. "One of the problems with all stories," Anthony suggests, "is they have no borders.... You use the things you know to guess at what is left outside the border." While Anthony remains as the primary narrator, the novel attempts to guess at every motivation, to provide every character's thoughts. This inclusiveness tends toward broad thematic musing, rather than the tighter narrative and dramatic focus of Reiken's excellent and much-praised first novel, The Odd Sea. The result is a work that is just as fascinating, even as it is slightly more uneven; Lost Legends is more disparate but also more daring.
At its heart is Anthony, confused and sweet, yet never sentimental. He loves to track constellations with his star map and to read William Carlos Williams (another New Jersey native son) just as he enjoys spying on Juliette, the nubile girl-next-door. Anthony's careful attention transforms the world around him: "He was always doing that, making things up, trying to see how it all might fit into a legend. He didn't understand why he did this, because New Jersey was not a legend. It was the armpit of America, according to most people. Still he saw everything around him as legend." Over and over, the book's descriptive passages produce such transformations. For instance, riding his bicycle late at night, Anthony "looked around and could see flashes of things he knew he would not remember -- beneath his tires the trellised shadows of crisscrossing branches; the moon-bleached road that looked as if were made of light."
"The moon is like a face that glows with sadness," Anthony's mother tells him, translating her sister's Hebrew poem, and this moon haunts The Lost Legends of New Jersey, its light changing the aspect of all it falls upon. It is Jess who changes the most, perhaps -- not so much due to her own adjustments, but to the development of Anthony's understanding of her. By 1983, she lives in Florida and has taken up scuba diving; underwater, she is able to lose her troubles. Still, when she returns to New Jersey, appearing at Anthony's hockey game, she must silently prepare herself: "Normal. Please God, once, let me act normal." As she learns in the Kabbala, joy and sadness are intertwined.
Anthony's attempt to understand the breakup of his parent's marriage, along with his own relationship with Juliette, echo this theme. The novel carefully explores the nature of love -- its demands, its pleasures, its disappointments -- and reveals how it, like the moon, changes all it touches. Perhaps Anthony's parents were not meant to be married, but then he would not exist, and there would be no story to tell, neither joy nor sadness. "You just vault into things," he concludes, "and then you hope."
Peter Rock is the author of the novels Carnival Wolves and This Is the Place. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, he now lives in Philadelphia. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.