It’s taken me a while to find the book Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take On the Garden State, edited by Irina Reyn (Touchstone Books, 2007, thankfully still in print). This book of essays about New Jersey is an absolute goldmine for those who have grown up in New Jersey and are still working out what the meaning of it all. I love one of the central themes of the book: that all of New Jersey can be categorised by the exits of the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. For example, here is a list of the book’s chapters:
Introduction by Irina Reyn (Exit 156: Fair Lawn) – you can read this chapter here.
The Family Farm by Kathleen Demarco (Exit 7: Hammonton)
Rose of the Jersey Shore by Jonathan Ames (Exit 82: Seaside Park)
Notes on Camden by Lauren Grodstein (Exit 4: Camden)
A Rumble and a Scream by Caren Lissner (Exit 7A: Great Adventure, Jackson)
Suburban Legends by Elizabeth Keenan (Exit 9: Princeton Junction)
New Jersey: The Movie by Adam Lowenstein (Exit 9: Highland Park) – “Nothing could be less cinematic than New Jersey,” he starts his chapter. And later continues: “But for me, New Jersey is where my own passion for cinema was born …. Today as a professor of film studies, I can trace a direct line from my awakening to movies to the work I feel lucky to devote myself to every day.” His chapter reflects on “how New Jersey became cinematic because of its mythic awfulness, not despite it.” (See additional notes on this chapter below.)
Straight Outta Garwood by Tom Perrotta (Exit 135: Garwood) – Perrotta is the author of some of my most favourite New Jersey novels: Joe College, The Wishbones and Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies.
The Venice of New Jersey by Askold Melnyczuk (Exit 137: Cranford)
New Jersey, 1963 by Dani Shapiro (Exit 143B: Hillside)
Ogling the Statue of Liberty by Gaiutra Bahadur (Exit 14B: Jersey City)
The Commute by Christian Bauman (Exit 14C: Hoboken)
Hell, Home, or Hoboken by Caroline Leavitt (Exit 14C: Hoboken)
Uncommon Criminal by James Kaplan (Exit 145: West Orange)
The Muse of New Jersey by Cathi Hanauer (Exit 145: West Orange)
Exit 15W by Joshua Braff (Exit 15W: South Orange) – author of New Jersey Jewish coming-of-age novel The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, and the older brother of actor/director Zach Braff.
Horizon House by Frederick Reiken (Exit 18W: Fort Lee) – Reiken is another great New Jersey fiction writer – see his The Lost Legends of New Jersey.
So Close, Yet so Far by Lucinda Rosenfeld (Exit 18W: Fort Lee)
Taking the Nets by David Roth (Exit 165: Ridgewood)
It appears that more than half of the authors are Jewish, many of them writing about their Jewish experiences – see this New Jersey Jewish News article by Judy Wilson for more details.
In the article, Dani Shapiro is interviewed quotes the saying by Flannery O’Connor “Any writer who lives to fifteen has enough material to write about for a lifetime.” – “That seems to go double for New Jersey natives,” Judy Wilson concludes.
My favourite chapter in this book is, naturally, Adam Lowenstein’s, where he neatly connects his (and my) hometown – Highland Park – with movies set in New Jersey. He draws from films as diverse as Cop Land, Jersey Girl, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Garden State, connecting them all to his experience of growing up in New Jersey. You can actually read most of this chapter online here at Google Books (but hey, publisher, don’t worry – I bought a paper copy of the book anyway! Just going to prove that book digitisation does not necessarily kill physical book sales, well at least not yet). Lowenstein grew up in Highland Park (HPHS class of 1989, and an editor of the yearbook in his senior year – pushing for the theme “across the river”; which river would that be?) and is currently an associate professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on horror film.