Reading New Jersey

roth bookI recently finished reading Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, a book I’d read several times in the past, but not since I moved to New Jersey. Now that I live here, the book–which I’ve always loved–takes on a whole new meaning.

The narrator, a young man named Neil Klugman, lives in Newark, a working class community at the time the book was written in 1959. Neil embarks on a romance that summer with a wealthy college girl from Short Hills, Brenda Patimkin. The book is fraught with references to Essex County. Neil works at the public library on Washington Street in Newark, attends the Rutgers extension program in that city and has an aunt who lives in Livingston. Brenda’s brother, Ron, was a star basketball player at Millburn High School. Neil observes businessman coming off the train from Maplewood and South Orange.

There are also two references to Montclair, neither especially flattering. When Neil first meets Brenda, who tells him she goes to school in Boston, he says this: “For an instant Brenda reminded me of the pug-nosed little bastards from Montclair who come down to the library during vacations, and while I stamp out their books, they stand around tugging their elephantine scarves until they hang to their ankles, hinting all the while at ‘Boston’ and ‘New Haven’.”

philip roth house
Philip Roth’s boyhood home in Newark

Later in the book, while walking through the library, he describes passing past the periodical room, “where a few ancient ladies who’d been motored down from Upper Montclair now huddled in their chairs, pince-nezing over yellowed, fraying society pages in old copies of the Newark News.”

Philip Roth, of course, grew up in Newark, and has set many of his books in the area. In March, the city celebrated Roth’s 80th birthday, with an appearance by the legendary author and tours of landmarks central to his life and work.

Reading Goodbye, Columbus, I got to wondering what other books are set in Essex County. Readers, help me out. What other books are set primarily in this area? And what are your favorite books about New Jersey?

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  1. Faces = faves. It keeps turning the word faves into faces and I don’t want it too. Stop it, HAL.

  2. “Dead City” by Shane Stevens. Kind of the ultimate Jersey crime novel. And makes Janet Evanovich and Mary Higgins Clark read like floundering children.

  3. Great post, Christina!

    Junot Diaz’s novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” — much of which is set in New Jersey — briefly mentions Montclair State.

    And while this was nonfiction, I read a biography of Humphrey Bogart that mentioned him dating someone from Montclair as a young man.

  4. Terrific post, Christina. Thank you.

    Unlike Roth’s novella however, the 1969 film starring Ali McGraw (Brenda), Richard Benjamin (Neil), and the late Jack Klugman (Mr. Potimkin) is set in The Bronx and Purchase (Westchester County) NY, rather than Newark/Short Hills. I find that fact to be curious and I’d be interested in knowing why screenwriter Arnold Schulman made the change.

    The book is a treasure as it brilliantly satirizes upper middle class, suburban, nouveau riche, Jewish culture.

    I recall one scene where Neil patronizingly criticizes the pretentiousness of naming the streets in Short Hills after Eastern various colleges. All I can tell Mr. Roth is that we have our own Harvard Street, Yale Terrace, Princeton Place, and Cornell Way.

  5. Also, current literary darling Richard Ford wrote a couple novels from the point of view of a shore-based real estate agent with ties to a very Baristaville neighborhood. I read two of his books, and while very good I don’t see what the hype was about.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for weighing in. Silverleaf, interesting fact about the movie, which I didn’t know. Maybe Schulman thought Newark/Short Hills was too unknown compared to the Bronx/upstate NY? Regardless, what a disappointment…

  7. Henry Charlton Beck, The Roads of Home. Great book on NJ history. I’ve had some interesting adventures tracking down the places in his books. BTW There is an exhibit on Roth & Newark at the library on Washington Street. Lots of old photos etc. It’s on the second floor by the periodical room!

  8. Sterling Hayden’s autobiography “Wanderewr” should also be noted. The first few chapters are about his growing up in Montclair, and his view of Montclair as a poisonous, stultifying sort of place strikes me as terribly relevant today.

    As for Debbie Galant’s novels, while I appreciate and understand the gesture of loyalty, really, come on. They remain exercises in triviality. Akin to Baristanet posts, not appreciably better in any way.

  9. Can’t forget Jon Katz and his Montclair detective Kit Deleeuw. He was a Montclair resident but has moved on.

  10. Here I thought finally there’s going to be a wealth of knowledge, obscure tomes revealed relating the storied history of Montclair’s youth, or perhaps an intimate look at the authors one might have met and dropped a tidbit to help them along. But no, nay to a happy experience from one whom is so lucky to bump into those movers and shakers and with a keen insight to the relevance of their existence, to spin us a yarn along say the likes of Samuel Clemens. We instead are subject to the likes of a slow commenting day, when it’s hardly worth the effort to to put finger to key in this dust bowl of a poor excuse for a blog, to let us know how empty our lives are in this faux suburbia. Thank you once again for grounding me to emptiness of this vast wasteland of hopelessness and ineptitude. Silly me.

  11. sillyphus…..Wow! Thanks for putting in your 2 cents plain. I noticed you omitted your sillyphus syllabus for us to peruse?
    Any relation to Cathar?

  12. Cathar,

    Your comment about Debbie Galant’s novels was simply mean.
    Please provide us with a list of novels you’ve been able to publish
    so that we may judge for ourselves the quality of your literary skill.

  13. The pseudo-Albigensian sniffs: “… his view of Montclair as a poisonous, stultifying sort of place strikes me as terribly relevant today.

    This, from a resident of Clifton? A town of which it is said there are no suicides therein, because the act would be redundant.

  14. Back to the subject….

    I read Warren Littlefield’s memoirs about his time as the head of NBC, and the stories behind Must See TV. A great read for any TV fan, especially those who love those shows.

    And I’m in the middle of Questlove’s autobiography. He tells a story about KISS early on that is precious. Also he knows EVERY episode of Soul Train!

    I re-read August Wilson’s “Fences” a few months ago, and will probably re-read a few others this Summer.

    Nothing too heavy, it’s Summer and I gotta lot of software to learn.

  15. PAZ mf, cathar and I are no more related than you and he are. But in a way it was a compliment that the syncopated prattling of the sycophant came through in the comment. As for my sillybus, I quote Groucho ” Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

  16. Ah, dear, poor Courson. The man whose posts convey, beyond sighing, very little. That the founder of this site had a bully pulpit via which to tout her novels has/had absolutely nothing to do with their literary value. That her loyalists gather together now to cluck dismayingly is of similarly inane import. (But I have before, in this very space, praise Ms. Galant’s editorial stewarshipof this site; back then, there was greater emphasis placed on the importance of proper grammar and the basics of Journalism 1, the very things that Ms Gillham and her ilk so studiously ignore these days.)

    And poor, dear Courson, shouldn’t you be packing for Detroit? Newark again at the very least? You imagine yourself witty for your remark about Clifton but give the town this: at least a sonorous old bore like yourself doesn’t live there. “We” are therefore pestilence-free in this respect. Give us your tired, your hungry, your Courson-riddled.

  17. I haven’t read any books tied to NJ lately, no particular one comes to mind, but a google search brought up some interesting ones I might try. I find summer a good time for lighter stuff … Koontz’s “Odd Thomas” series has recently been an enjoyable read.

  18. Yes Courson, you too could hunker down in a “garden” apartment in Clifton a la cathar and toss all sorts of nonsensical and tiresome tripe about from time to time. You too could invent friendships with long-dead rock stars, respectful exchanges with imaginary bikers, and delusional expertise in things literary. You could pretend that you go out to restaurants and attend parties when in fact you sit in front of the screen with a Swanson Hungry Man. You could pretend that you have something important to say and that anyone wants to hear it. In short, you could live La Vida Cathar!

    Better I think to stay in poisonous Montclair, a place where cathar feels, thank God, unwelcome.

  19. As for NJ novels, I’d nominate David Gates’ recent JERNIGAN or the old favourite, THIS SIDE OF PARADISE by Fitzgerald. Bergen county or Princeton, you choose.

    I’m awaiting the great NJ — hell, the great AMERICAN novel — to emerge from Clifton any day now!

  20. cathar – While we are on subject of novels, has it occurred to you that your posts are getting more Faulkneresque and stream of consciousness like every day. It has become clear to all that your prose style and use of language is maniacally convoluted and serves no purpose, as croiagusanam correctly points out, other than a platform for your arcane knowledge and transparant name dropping.

  21. American Pastoral, a later novel by Roth, takes place in Newark in the late 90’s. “In the Beauty of the Lilies”, by John Updike, begins in Paterson in 1910 with Mary Pickford working in a D.W. Griffith film at Lambert Castle. There’s a beautiful painting of the falls on the cover of the book. And all of Janet Evanovich’s Plum series take place around Trenton.

  22. Silverleaf: Remember that the movie was released in 1969, it may be that by 1969 Newark had a different national “reputation”. I believe that the great Jewish flight from Newark to west Essex was well under way. Or it may be that Arnold Schulman was more familiar with The Bronx and Purchase and felt safer (or better) writing about those locations. But after 40 years of being involved with “location shoots”, my best guess is that it had more to do with the production company’s access to the locations. The municipalities may have had easier restrictions, lower location fees, less expensive aux police fees, etc.: it may have just been easier and simpler to shoot in NY State at that time. The latter is, my educated guess but in the end…who knows?

  23. The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken by Laura Schenone (Montclair resident, I think)

    The Last Newspaperman by Star Ledger columnist Mark DiIonno – fictional account about reporter during Lindbergh kidnapping

  24. dane – I’m thinking, if the film was shot in The Bronx/Purchase for reasons relating to access to location, production cost, fees, etc, the narrative still could have taken place in within the confines of Newark/Short Hills.

    In any event, it still remains both a wonderful film and book nonetheless.

    Thanks very much for the insight; I appreciate it.

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