The State I’m In

Last week the New York chapter of  Mystery Writers of America sponsored a Facebook panel on “New Jersey writers.” It was a lot of fun, at least for me. On the panel, which was led by RG Belsky, whose books I’ve reviewed here, were Mally Becker, whose new historical mystery, The Turncoat’s Widow, is set in the Revolutionary War, Jeff Markowitz, past chapter president, also with a recent book, Hit or Miss, and me, who will have a book out later this year.

The first issue we dispensed with was “who IS a New Jersey writer”? There are people who live in and write about New Jersey (at least sometimes). There are people who live her but write about other places. And there are people who live somewhere else and write about New Jersey–wannabees. We can usually identify them.

Panel members agreed there’s a New Jersey sensibility—a bit of a chip on the shoulder, being constantly looked down upon by our near-neighbors across the Hudson, a lot of attitude, and a lack of shrinking violets. I complained (again, but I live in New Jersey, so why not?) about the Akashic book of short stories, New Jersey Noir, many of which for my money could have been written about almost anyplace. I didn’t get a chance to plug Bill Baer’s new book New Jersey Noir: Cape May, which hilariously captures several perfect specimens from the New Jersey ecosystem.

Some of the well-known crime/mystery writers who call New Jersey home are Harlan Coben, Joyce Carol Oates, and Janet Evanovich, whose protagonist, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, works out of Trenton. Equally witty is Brad Parks, whose early books drew on his experience as a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. A newspaperman like Belsky, he’s deserted the Garden State for Virginia.

The diversity of New Jersey crime writers is reflected in the day jobs they’ve held: Joe Hefferon (law enforcement), Steven Max Russo (advertising executive), N. Lombardi, Jr. (groundwater geologist, who has decamped to Cambodia), Nikki Stern (professional musician), Al Tucher (librarian), the aforementioned Baer (college professor and award-winning poet), and Sergio de la Pava (public defender). Their books are just as diverse! Me, I gave away money. Don’t call. That was a long time ago.

Even if these writers all chose New Jersey as the setting for their books, they still have a lot of choices—New Jersey Transit (a world unto itself), the notable universities scattered across the state, the honky-tonk and environmental treasures of the Jersey Shore, the densely populated north, self-contained communities of myriad ethnic groups, the Pine Barrens (where Markowitz likes to set stories. It’s the big green area in the southern half of the state), and the rural western and southern counties. No matter where you are, though, you’d be hard-pressed to escape the heavy Italian influence: pizza, pasta, and Sinatra.

New Jersey Noir: Cape May

New Jersey Noir: Cape May is the second of William Baer’s novels about private investigator Jack Colt, set firmly in New Jersey. Jack is a resident of Paterson, noted for its waterfalls that powered local industry (pictured). There, one of his forebears founded the Colt firearms manufacturing company, so naturally, the revolver he carries is a Colt Python. Luckily, he’s pretty good with it too.

A judge from Cape May, New Jersey, at the far southern tip of the state, calls on Jack with an intriguing tale of two mysterious deaths. He’d hired a local Cape May private investigator, Edward Colt—puzzling coincidence there—to look into the murder of his daughter ten years before. Now Eddie Colt has been murdered.

Judge O’Brien had twin daughters, Nikki and Rikki. When Nikki was seventeen, her car was driven into the Atlantic Ocean with her in the trunk. The police long ago exhausted their available suspects, but Eddie Colt wanted to pursue it. In his papers were twenty-five thousand dollars and a note: “Remittance for Jack Colt.” “He wants you to solve the case,” the judge told Jack. “Both cases.”

Jack goes about doing just that, re-interviewing the dead girl’s twin, Rikki, their friends, and trying to get a lead on a college student Nikki met the night she disappeared. The story, as Jack gradually unwraps it, has unexpected twists and is nicely plotted.

Two additional aspects make the novel a true pleasure to read: humor and narrative voice. The banter between Jack and Rikki and between Jack and his elderly receptionist will keep you chuckling. For that matter, all the dialog is strong, reflecting author Baer’s playwriting expertise.

Most of the story is told by Jack himself. You feel as if you’re sitting in the passenger seat of his car, tooling down the Garden State Parkway.

As such conversations go in real life, Jack wanders a bit, taking the opportunity to throw in facts about New Jersey, which he clearly loves, Paterson especially. But Baer has such a light touch, these digressions stay interesting, not pedantic. For example, he points out that Cape May has more Victorian homes than any other city in the United States, except San Francisco.

In addition to the first novel in this series, author Baer has published several books of short stories, plays, and nonfiction works and is an award-winning poet and playwright.

You can be forgiven for assuming the book is part of the Akashic Books short story series set in various cities and, in fact, Akashic published a New Jersey Noir a few years ago. Unlike stories in that volume, many of which unfortunately seemed as if they might have occurred anywhere, Baer’s book is New Jersey all the way. Real New Jerseyans will recognize that last bit as a shout-out to one of our state’s most famous characters.

Paterson

Paterson, Adam DriverOppressed (or freaked out) by the news? Here’s a calming and rewarding way to spend two hours in a movie theater cocoon. Writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s movie Paterson (trailer) doesn’t travel far, but it’s a pleasant journey. Adam Driver plays a New Jersey Transit bus driver (possibly he was cast based on his name alone) named Paterson, who drives a bus in—you knew it!—Paterson, New Jersey.

He lives there with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their English bulldog, Marvin (Nellie). Though he follows the same routine and drives the same bus route every day, Paterson is not bored, because his creative imagination is fully engaged. A basement poet, he polishes his creations on the job, and they scroll gently across the screen as he makes his rounds or studies the Passaic River’s Great Falls.

He carries his books of poetry—especially that of William Carlos Williams—and listens to the small talk of his passengers, the rhythm of their language as much as the words. It’s “a movie that’s filled with poetry and that is a poem in itself. The movie’s very being is based in echoes and patterns,” said Richard Brody in The New Yorker.

Laura bursts forth with her own creative endeavors, the only common thread of which is their black-and-white color scheme. Black-and-white frosted cupcakes—a big hit at the farmer’s market—which she hopes will make them rich; a black and white harlequin guitar, which she hopes will launch her career as a country singer. She’s a charming dabbler and Paterson’s muse.

Every night when he returns home, it seems some other part of their house or Laura’s wardrobe has been reconceived in her favorite non-color combination. I couldn’t help believing that at some point she’ll recognize that her immense talent with fabric would be an awesome career direction. Meanwhile, her patterns fill Paterson with visual interest, “creating a vibrant visual punctuation to the otherwise relaxed storytelling,” said Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

Paterson the driver, or perhaps I should say, Driver as Paterson, has one extracurricular activity, a visit to a neighborhood tavern every evening. Lots happens during that one nightly beer. Most of it hilarious. The décor of the tavern, replete with articles about Paterson greats—especially Lou Costello—further ties the man and the story to a circumscribed geography, the launchpad for his words.

Driver, Farahani, and Nellie play their roles winningly, with a memorable, if small, supporting cast.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 95%; audiences, 73%. (Not enough happens for some audience members would be my guess.)

*** New Jersey Noir

New Jersey NoirEdited by Joyce Carol Oates. It isn’t a coincidence that I’m reviewing this 2011 book of noir short stories in the middle of two weeks of Sunday blog posts about a celebration of JCO’s teaching. When I knew I was going to the event, I grabbed this book from the “to read” pile.

Noir is distinguished from other types of mystery and suspense fiction by having a protagonist who’s a suspect, a perpetrator, or even a victim—an insider to the situation. Pretty much anyone but a detective/investigator. Often the main characters have a boatload of problems, usually of their own making. My favorite definition of these protagonists is crime writer Dennis Lehane’s: “In Greek tragedy, they fall from great heights. In noir, they fall from the curb.”

I’ve been an “in principle” admirer of Akashic Books’ now lengthy series of place-based noir anthologies, and picked up New Jersey Noir at a local bookstore event, where Oates spoke about it and introduced (I think) one or two of the contributors. Now I’ve finally read it and am disappointed to say many of the 19 stories and poems felt as if they could have happened anywhere.

Sheila Kohler’s creepy “Wunderlich,” for example, is about the bleak territory of aging, not the peculiar dynamic of New Jersey. Various other tales have no more than a whiff of Garden State verisimilitude, which violates the underlying rationale of the series, I’d think. Collectively, these stories hardly scratch the surface of the state’s noir potential, as a glance at any of our daily newspapers would reveal. People in New Jersey fall from curbs like lemmings.

Too many of the stories (for my taste) lean heavily on substance abuse problems, which it won’t surprise the reader to learn cause all kinds of heartache. I rather liked the Bradford Morrow story set in Grover’s Mill, perhaps because I’d just spent considerable creative time there, myself. “Glass Eels” by Jeffrey Ford captures the loneliness of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, but is too similar in action to Robert Arellano’s “Kettle Run.” A story by Oates, “Run Kiss Daddy,” delivers a sufficiently oppressive atmosphere and dark underbelly to be the setup for a longer piece of writing. To me, the most interesting story is Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Too Near Real,” in which the protagonist follows the Google street view vehicle around Princeton, then watches himself “on the map.” Fresh and entertaining.