Look Homeward (Story about literature inspired by Essex County)
by Debra Galant
September 17, 2000
WHEN Philip Roth sent his fictional alter ego, Neil Klugman, from Newark to Short Hills to visit Brenda Patimkin in 1959, he sounded a literary theme that would reverberate for decades. The tension between gritty urban life and the wealthier -- but ultimately vacuous -- nearby suburbs has become a classic theme of modern American storytelling.
Only now it is Tony Soprano going back and forth between Satriale's Pork Store and his bland nouveau chateau in West Caldwell.
There is nowhere like New Jersey to set such a tale, and within its borders, nowhere like densely packed Essex County -- with Newark at its hub and places like Short Hills, Millburn, Maplewood and Montclair as the spokes.
To be sure, the major cities -- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- are frequent settings for movies and books, and they provide the stark backdrop for studying the contrast between haves and have-nots. Other parts of New Jersey have inspired novels and movies, like Richard Ford's well-received book ''Independence Day,'' and Stanley Tucci's movie, ''Big Night.''
But few places within or outside of New Jersey rival the 127 square miles of Essex County for such a compact collection of haves, have-a-little-lesses and have-a-little-bit-mores.
Where else can a reader or a moviegoer find tight Italian towns like Belleville, where the police and the Mafiosi party side by side at weddings? Or upper-middle-class Jewish shtetls like Livingston? Or towns like Bloomfield, Glen Ridge, Montclair, Verona and Caldwell, where the subtlest gradations of social class can be read by the Christmas decorations? (Life-size Navity scenes or plywood reindeer? Flickering multicolored lights, or understated candles in upstairs windows?)
Tom Cudworth, a screenwriter who grew up in Bloomfield and still lives there, fashioned the movie ''Ten Benny'' from a youth that was rich with such material. ''The kid in your homeroom's father was a made guy,'' Mr. Cudworth recalls. ''But he was also the guy who was taking you out to the pizzeria. And the language. There's a way that Italian-Americans can curse that's like poetry.''
Eric Bross, who directed ''Ten Benny'' and grew up in West Caldwell, agreed. ''It has an intrinsic authenticity,'' he said. ''You shoot in New Jersey and you feel like you're getting the real deal.''
A generation ago, this was hardly the case. Although Mr. Roth has been churning out stories about his native Newark for four decades, others have found the charms of Essex County more elusive. When Larry Peerce made the movie ''Goodbye, Columbus,'' in 1969, he shifted the action from Newark and Short Hills to the Bronx and Westchester.
It is hard to imagine the same decision being made today. Even if filmmakers don't specifically set their movies in actual New Jersey towns, several work in a very specific vernacular that is readily identifiable to denizens of the Exit State.
In addition to Mr. Bross and Mr. Cudworth, who also made the movie ''Restaurant'' -- set mainly in Hoboken but has some scenes in Newark -- there is Kevin Smith, director of ''Clerks,'' and Todd Solondz, director of two bizarre and critically acclaimed movies, ''Welcome to the Doll's House'' and ''Happiness.''
I N ''Doll's House'' and the even darker ''Happiness,'' Mr. Solondz -- who was born in Newark and raised in Livingston -- has painted suburbia not just as banal, but smug, mean-spirited and ultimately creepy. It is a point of view that Mr. Cudworth aptly calls an ''anti-Wonder Years.''
Novelists, too, continue to mine the territory first claimed by Mr. Roth. In ''Two Guys From Verona,'' James Kaplan writes about two Jewish men who came along a generation after Mr. Roth. In the space of that generation, the issues have changed -- from wanting to fit in to wanting something more than the bland version of success the suburbs represents.
''Earlier generations struggled financially to live, to be Americans,'' Mr. Kaplan said in a recent interview. ''Our generation, the generation twice removed, has struggled with the question of authenticity. Ease is not always easy.''
The same pattern is played out among many of the ethnic groups. Like the Jewish successors to Neil Klugman and the Italian-Americans represented on the ''Sopranos,'' black novelists like Benilde Little, who wrote ''Good Hair,'' and Valerie Wilson Wesley of the Tamara Hayle detective series also write about upper-middle-class blacks who have escaped their Newark roots.
Then there is a whole genre of literature based on the Upper West Side town of Montclair, or fictional hamlets very much like it. Jon Katz (''Murder by Station Wagon'') and Nancy Star (''Up Next''), residents of Montclair, come immediately to mind. And there is the work of a newly published author, Martin Golan, whose first novel about a troubled marriage, ''My Wife's Last Lover,'' is explicitly set in Montclair.
Montclair's appeal as a backdrop is mostly a matter of coincidence, since so many writers live there. But an integrated upper middle-class community with artistic pretensions turns out to be a pretty interesting place to write about.
As Mr. Golan's narrator observes at one point, ''Theirs was a perfect Montclair marriage: liberal politics wedded to a liberal income.''
On the other hand, some authors who now call Montclair home have discovered that writing about their own social milieu can be a little dull. Valerie Wilson Wesley said she set her Tamara Hayle detective series in Newark -- at least the heroine, a black single mother, lives there -- because Montclair wasn't ''interesting enough for a detective story.''
And although Ms. Wesley switched genres, writing the love story ''Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do,'' which was set in a place very much like Montclair, she said that by the last chapter she couldn't wait to get back to Tamara Hayle and Newark. ''I was bored with these people,'' she said about the well-to-do black family. ''It's just this middle-class angst.''
IT all starts with Newark.
For the past quarter-century, Newark -- a fading industrial city -- has been synonymous with poverty, ugliness and crime. Even in its heyday, Newark was overshadowed by the more titanic city to its east.
Still, it has played a pivotal role to tens of thousands of immigrants -- and in the case of blacks, migrants from the South -- for whom it was the first stop. It is a place where the first generation struggles to survive, and from which the second generation, reaping those rewards, feels obliged to escape.
Newark is a place where many successful people are from. And these aren't successful people who were handed the world on a silver platter. These are people who emerged from modest working-class surroundings. ''It's kind of a metaphor for upward mobility,'' Ms. Wesley said.
Clement Alexander Price, a professor of history at Rutgers University in Newark who studies the city, put it this way: ''It's part of a very powerful American narrative. There's a bittersweet sensibility about Newark because of that. It's the most sentimentalized city I've ever seen.''
And if there is one neighborhood in Newark that embodies that sensibility, it is Weequahic -- the fulcrum of Jewish life in the mid 20th century -- that became mixed racially in the 1960's.
William Helmreich, a sociologist who wrote about Weequahic in ''The Enduring Community: The Jews of Newark and Metrowest,'' was stunned to find how potent the neighborhood's pull remains on Jews raised there a half-century ago.
WHEN he was invited to speak in Boca Raton, Fla., Dr. Helmreich was stunned to see almost 400 people show up. ''All they knew was that a professor was going to talk about Jewish Newark,'' he said. ''The subject of Newark was so dear to them.''
Weequahic is Philip Roth country, a neighborhood so unabashedly Jewish in the post-war years that at football games, the students at Weequahic High (as Mr. Roth reported in ''Portnoy's Complaint'') would chant:
Ikey, Mikey, Jake, and Sam
We're the boys who eat no ham
We play football, baseball, soccer
We keep matzohs in our locker.
Although Mr. Roth mocked his roots in Portnoy's oversexed rants, his mockery was also mixed with an undeniable affection -- particularly for the Sunday morning softball games played by the neighborhood's middle-aged fathers:
''The chatter in the infield isn't chatter, its kibitzing, and (to this small boy, just beginning to learn the art of ridicule) hilarious, particularly the insults,'' writes Portnoy-cum-Roth. ''I tell you, they are an endearing lot!''
In Mr. Roth's neighborhood, the boys and men alike seize upon baseball as the magical passport to becoming American, and the young boys fantasize about shiksas. (What girls and women fantasized about, except for the horrible dangers that could befall their men, is less clear, at least in Mr. Roth's books.)
The place Mr. Roth describes is hardly identifiable as a big city. It is a small town within a big city, which is what neighborhoods were in Newark before Interstates 280 and 78 severed the city and the riots finished off the rest.
''It had a great infrastructure,'' said Dr. Price of Rutgers. ''It had a great downtown. I think a lot of it has to do with Newark having a very strong sense of place, where you had these intact ethnic neighborhoods, which gave people not only a sense of place but a sense of themselves.''
Richard Wesley, a black screenwriter who lives in Montclair, grew up in the Ironbound section of Newark in an era when ''everybody's fathers worked in factories'' and most of the mothers stayed at home. He grew up surrounded by factories -- Bethlehem Steel, Sherwin Williams, Benjamin Moore -- but it was places like Smiley's, a small malt stand that sold comic books and sodas -- that provided the intimate landscape of his childhood.
Still, it was Weequahic, which became a middle-class black neighborhood in the 1960's, that held Mr. Wesley spellbound. ''Weequahic was always a revelation,'' he said. ''It was like going into another world.
''There were streets in Weequahic that looked just like this,'' he added, gesturing to the lush Montclair street where he now lives. When Mr. Wesley graduated from Howard University in 1973, he had hoped to move into Weequahic.
''Everybody did,'' remarked Benilde Little, the author of ''Good Hair,'' who grew up there.
But when Mr. Wesley returned to New Jersey in 1973 and checked out the neighborhood of his fantasies, he found it a ''total disappointment.'' He discovered a neighborhood that was, while still black, no longer particularly green, or middle class. ''It was all those unemployed men standing on the corner on Chancellor,'' he lamented.
Ms. Little writes about that very transition in ''Good Hair.'' Alice Andrews, the main character, grows up in Weequahic, taking piano and dance lessons and sleeping in a bedroom that is a replica of Gidget's: ''We were sort of like the family in 'Father Knows Best,' except a tan version, and it was my mother who usually had the answers. We were living the American dream, I thought.''
Then, she writes, ''the 1967 riots happened,'' white families moved out overnight, selling their beautiful Tudors and colonials for peanuts,'' and ''less-fortunate kids'' moved in from the Central Ward. Alice Andrews's middle-class aspirations were mocked by new girls who cracked gum, threatened to beat her up and called her the worst insult they could think of -- ''white girl.''
''It was real difficult,'' recalled Ms. Little, who also lives in Montclair today. ''The good news is, I figured out a way to use it. It's the thing, I'm sure, that caused me to be a writer.''
STILL, nobody has mined the passing of Weequahic like Mr. Roth. ''American Pastoral,'' his 1997 novel about a Jewish athlete who marries a former Miss New Jersey and moves to the fictional country town of Old Rimrock, begins with a reunion of Weequahic High's 1950 graduating class. At the end of the affair, each alumnus is given a coffee mug containing a handful of rugelach -- ''each a snail of sugar-dusted pastry dough, the cinnamon-lined chambers microscopically studded with midget raisins and chopped walnuts'' -- which sends the book's narrator into a Proustian rapture.
The memory of Weequahic, in fact, beats like a tom-tom through the Roth canon. In ''The Facts,'' his 1988 autobiography, Mr. Roth describes a conversation with the mother of an old childhood friend, whom he came across in Miami in 1982:
''As we sat talking at the edge of a gin-rummy game, she suddenly took hold of my hand and, smiling at me with deeply emotional eyes -- with that special heart-filled look that all our mothers had -- she said, 'Phil, the feeling there was among you boys -- I've never seen anything like it again.' I told her, altogether truthfully, that I haven't either.''
The black poet Amiri Baraka, once known as LeRoi Jones, is like the bookend to Mr. Roth. His rants about Newark rival Mr. Roth's in their intensity, and his status as the spokesman of black Newark is at least equal to Mr. Roth's as the spokesman of Jewish Newark. One of Mr. Baraka's most famous epic poems is entitled ''The System of Dante's Hell.''
It reads like somebody's dream, volatile fragments, hard to decipher:
''Donald reached across the whore and pushed the door open. The car still moving about 20 miles an hour and the sudden air opened my eyes in the smoke . . . we all knew Montclair was like a beautifully furnished room and someone would hear and we would die in jail . . . ''
If Newark is the innermost ring of hell, then surely the towns immediately surrounding it constitute close seconds -- places like Irvington and East Orange and Belleville. Belleville borders Bloomfield and Nutley, and the three towns together constitute what the comedian Rick Corso has jokingly referred to as the Pasta Triangle. It is somewhere in one of these neighborhoods that Uncle Junior of ''The Sopranos'' lives.
This is also the territory of the screenwriter Tom Cudworth, whose screenplay for the movie, ''Ten Benny,'' begins with the words: ''Wright's Field is in the south end of Bloomfield.''
Mr. Cudworth still lives within walking distance of Wright's Field, a place where ''all the great junior high fights were'' and where generations of Bloomfield boys ''smoked for the first time, French-kissed for the first time.''
Places like Belleville and Bloomfield mark one generation's baby steps into the good life of suburbia. In Bloomfield, Mr. Cudworth said, the middle-aged men were so happy to own a patch of grass that they would never think to let anybody else mow it.
Bloomfield is also a place where idiosyncratic candy stores have not been completely obliterated by franchise convenience stores, and where suburbanization has not yet bleached all the grit and gumption out of its children. ''The girl fights in this park were astounding,'' Mr. Cudworth recalled. ''The girls were tough.''
Nor were the girls the only ones who could handle themselves. ''Ten Benny'' tells the story about a young shoe salesman with big dreams and bigger debts, whose penchant for gambling runs him afoul of some minor gangsters. It is peopled with heavy drinkers, men down on their luck and fathers who die suddenly (as Mr. Cudworth's did).
''Whatever I had, my father found, or it fell off a truck,'' Mr. Cudworth said. ''There was always a lot of bad news. And this was Disneyland compared to Newark.''
THE popularity of ''The Sopranos'' may be due in part to the fact that it so deftly bridges these worlds: the inner ring suburbs of Belleville and Bloomfield, and the outer ring neighborhoods like West Caldwell. In doing so, it captures the continuing American saga of assimilation.
Michael Aaron Rockland, a professor of American Studies at Rutgers, believes Tony Soprano is appealing because he straddles these two worlds.
''Yeah, he's a mobster, but he's a suburban dad,'' Dr. Rockland said. ''He rubs people out but he goes to the school play.''
The outermost circles of hell are places like Livingston, West Caldwell and Verona. Livingston is where the filmmaker Mr. Solondz grew up, and ''Welcome to the Doll's House'' is set in a town very much like it, although it was filmed in West Caldwell. This is a suburb of undistinguished split levels and tasteless Jews, seen very much through a Diane Arbus lens. A gawky 11-year-old girl with glasses is tortured by her classmates daily, but none of the self-absorbed adults around her notice. It's the American dream twisted into the American nightmare -- a classic third-generation coming-of-age story, done hip. It's Gothic and ironic at the same time.
Mr. Solondz's ''Happiness'' is even creepier. The story's main character is a psychiatrist who is also a pedophile. He lives in an upscale suburban house, tended by his idiotically self-satisfied wife, and molests his son's friend during a sleep-over.
This is similar territory, at least geographically, to that covered by Mr. Kaplan's ''Two Guys from Verona'' and Mr. Reiken's ''Lost Legends.''
Both books take place in the outer ring, and both, like Mr. Roth, deal with characters who are Jewish and male. While Mr. Kaplan's characters are Baby Boomers who grew up and remained in Verona, Mr. Reiken's tale is a coming-of-age story about Generation X.
Like the movie ''Welcome to the Doll's House,'' Mr. Reiken's ''Lost Legends'' is also set in Livingston, but it is a slightly kinder, gentler Livingston than the one portrayed by Mr. Solondz. True, there is a rough crowd of teenagers who go to parties to get drunk and break stuff, and there is an Italian neighbor who is always getting beaten up over gambling debts. But the main character, Anthony Rubin, is a thoroughly assimilated Jew with a heart of gold, who also happens to be the star of his high school ice hockey team.
The central theme of Mr. Reiken's book is the barriers to true love, played against a background of class and ethnic tensions. You have Jewish boys falling for Italian girls, Jewish girls falling for Irish guys, and a Polish girl who marries a Jew for financial security rather than love. But all this serves as a foil and contrast for the tenderness of Anthony, who at the end of the book, beholds his Livingston backyard as a place that was ''both beautiful and horrible, a place both magical and empty.''
Mr. Reiken's book is steeped in Essex County, from the Eppes Essen restaurant in Livingston to the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange.
''I guess in a certain way I found the Turtle Back Zoo hilarious,'' Mr. Reiken said. ''It was certainly the worst zoo in the history of time. There's something absurd about it, and on the other hand, completely natural about it.''
Mr. Kaplan's ''Two Guys From Verona,'' with middle-aged baby boomers for its central characters, reads more like a New Jersey version of a Tom Wolfe novel. Its two main characters are Will and Joel, who have remained in Verona, the town where they grew up. Will has gone into the family box business, and lives a dreary domestic life enlivened only by sexual fantasies and materialistic desires.
Joel, who got his girlfriend pregnant as a teenager, is still living at home with his mother and working in a sub shop. The Verona Mr. Kaplan draws is populated by expensive cars, cutthroat tennis matches, middle-aged women with freckled cleavage, menacing teenagers and the occasional mobster, and it is financed through rising real estate prices and a great deal of debt.
Mr. Kaplan, who grew up in South Orange, said that at first he thought the themes in his novel were universal. ''I wanted to make the case that it could be any suburb, because I wanted to sell the book,'' he said.
But he now realizes that much of the story's charm comes from its location. His characters visit such familiar landmarks as Pal's Cabin, the Mall at Short Hills and the South Mountain Reservation. If Mr. Kaplan's eye was trained to notice the nuance of neighborhood (in which ''ticky-tacky houses'' will go in the ''mid to high threes,'' for example), it may be because he grew up in a place where the stratifications of social class were so visible, like the concentric circles in a tree trunk.
Mr. Kaplan, who now lives in Westchester, said that when he thinks of the Essex County landscape of his childhood, he pictures ''The Swimmer,'' the John Cheever short story that was made into a movie in 1968, in which the main character crosses the county by swimming from pool to pool.
''In my mind, it's a network of country clubs,'' Mr. Kaplan said. ''And there were dozens of them, each with its own sociology and status system.''
AND so Mr. Kaplan's Verona is not just Anyplace, U.S.A., but a very specific mixture of strip malls, side streets, mountains and parks.
''It's very much Essex County, the Essex County that I knew,'' he said. ''Regardless of what happens, regardless of the Internet, regardless of the mall, regardless of television, the land endures.''