I grew up in New Jersey, in a town called Wall, not far from another town called Brick. In college, kids from glamorous places like Miami and Los Angeles and Great Neck thought the names of these towns, and their proximity to one another, were very funny. They chuckled about it pityingly — Florida smirking at California, California shrugging amiably at Long Island — as if they weren’t in fact surprised. Apparently, something about those innocuous names fit in with a national perception of lump-headed Jersey folk. “Is there a town called ‘Floor’ around there too?” a boy from Gainesville, Fla., asked.
In other words, it took 18 years for me to figure out that New Jersey had a special reputation. My college classmates from all over the country would stare at my prom pictures with drop-jawed fascination, as if they’d believed big hair, sequins and too-tanned skin were just the stuff of legend. Here was proof, right in their own dorm, in 1995, that Jersey still yielded these curiously decorated creatures and their wife-beater-wearing counterparts — women who swore like truck drivers, fathers who kept guns in bedside tables, cousins who lived in trailer parks, friends who were in the mob. To them, New Jersey was some white-trash fantasia, quite like what you find in Mira Nair’s “Hysterical Blindness,” the most terrifying depiction of Jersey life and fashions yet. It was a Los Angeles-born friend who said she’d hated New Jersey ever since she learned that the ’80s show “Dance Party USA” was filmed there.
What struck me at the time, however, was that no other state seemed to incite such revulsion — not arguably similar places such as Connecticut or Pennsylvania or Maryland. Not New York, with its colorful extensions of Long Island and Staten Island. Not remote, strange states like the Dakotas, or Alabama and Mississippi, those humid locales with painful links to our troubled racial history. No place inspires such freely expressed, comic snobbery as does the Armpit of America (New Jersey’s persistent moniker, despite the fact that the vast majority of the state is wooded and pretty, not to mention very wealthy).
“It has an identity crisis,” said Lance Strate, a professor of communications at Fordham University and a contributor to “This Thing of Ours,” a book about “The Sopranos.” “People call it ‘Jersey.’ No one says ‘York’ or ‘Mexico’ or ‘Hampshire.’ The name communicates a sense of disrespect.
“Take Martha Stewart,” he went on. “When she was riding high, she was from Connecticut. Now that she’s been indicted, she’s from Nutley” — New Jersey.
The opening credits of “The Sopranos” embody New Jersey’s physical (and metaphorical) contradictions: Tony drives on the foul Jersey Turnpike, Tony passes ugly, working class towns, Tony ends up at his North Jersey McMansion, resplendent with green grass in a hilly neighborhood. “The Sopranos” has probably had the largest effect on the perception of New Jersey since Bruce Springsteen and Philip Roth. Thirty-five dollar tour buses now venture around Bergen County, showing off the state’s “Sopranos” locations, from the Bada Bing, according to the tour’s Web site, to “the spot where Big Pussy spoke with the FBI.”
In truth, for all the suffering it’s endured since Joe Piscopo’s “Jersey Guy” routine on “Saturday Night Live,” New Jersey hardly needs “The Sopranos” to bring it more glamorous kinds of attention. The place is literally bursting with writers, directors and musicians, all ready to tell the truth, good and bad, about the place. And critics have long pointed out that New Jersey is a rich source of material for them. The late George Plimpton told the New York Times not so long ago that New Jersey’s “habitués are so extraordinary — more than any other state in the East. The mob, great prizefighters, the prisons, the world of Far Hills, the gamblers, the shore, the corridor between Philadelphia and New York — there is this extraordinary framework that the state’s writers have had throughout American history.”
There are too many Jersey books and movies to count. In recent years, we’ve seen Frederick Reiken’s bestselling novel “The Lost Legends of New Jersey,” James Kaplan’s “Two Guys from Verona,” all of Janet Evanovich’s books with her kick-ass Trenton heroine, Helene Stapinski’s “Five Finger Discount,” Lucinda Rosenfeld’s “Why She Went Home.” Gary Krist wrote a book called “The Garden State.” Allen Ginsberg has a poem called “Garden State”; Rick Moody’s first novel was named the same; and this summer, “Scrubs” star turned director Zach Braff lifts the irony-infused title for a Sundance-acclaimed film in which he stars with Natalie Portman. Tom Perrotta, Sam Lipsyte, Kathleen DeMarco, David Gates, Richard Ford, Richard Price, William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka — the list goes on.
Add Kevin Smith’s proud “Jersey Trilogy” to Todd Solondz’s suburban misery-fest “Happiness,” and you have a film library of New Jersey convenience stores, malls, Bon Jovi and Camaros, as well as the Jersey of listless suburbs and collective boredom. If we can admit it, these images of New Jersey make up a land we all recognize. As humorist Joel Stein told the New York Times, in an article about the self-consciously Jersey band Fountains of Wayne, “people might make fun of it, but New Jersey is quintessentially American.”
It’s not surprising that one of America’s greatest living writers and one of its best writers about the American experience, Philip Roth, has produced countless books set in New Jersey, from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “American Pastoral” to the forthcoming “The Plot Against America,” in which Roth returns to Newark after a recent hiatus in Massachusetts and New York. Roth has given us the most profound, and widely read, portrayal of the Americanness of New Jersey life — the drudgery of its cities, the clash of ethnicity and race, the yearning to get out and get somewhere better, and even then, the stultification of bourgeois life. David Chase’s “The Sopranos,” with its in-between-classes Italians, offers a variation on that theme.
But what ideas are New Jersey artists — including newly popular bands like Fountains of Wayne with its lovely ode to “Hackensack” and big dreams of stardom far away from there — exporting about their state? About five years ago, back when South Orange native Lauryn Hill was around, a few articles came out suggesting that New Jersey was “in,” or at least, no longer “out.” And every so often another trend story appears, as they surely will again after Braff’s “Garden State” debuts. The Jersey jokes are tired, these stories suggested. The world is a bigger place now — there are far, far worse corners of hell than New Jersey.
But for those of us from New Jersey, who’ve long whined about our inferiority to New York, and thus the world, the reparation has come too late. Jersey natives have long internalized the reputation and outsider status bestowed upon them and mined it for its truths and falsehoods. What it all adds up to is a sort of immigrant-spawned, working-middle-class, disaffected-guy, slighted-by-the-world, poorly dressed sense of authenticity, a myth of one’s own special New Jerseyness, something that’s both unique to the rest of the country and at the heart of it. New Jersey’s writers are in on the Jersey jokes; more than just reclaim them, they’ve taken them someplace new. As Solondz’s character in “Happiness” said, “You know, people are always putting New Jersey down. None of my friends can believe I live here. But that’s because they don’t get it: I’m living in a state of irony.”
It is that very mythology and the creation of it that Tom Perrotta, New Jersey native and author of “Bad Haircut,” “Joe College” and most recently “Little Children” (which takes place in the Boston suburbs, to which he’s since fled), finds so interesting. “I met Junot Diaz [author of 'Drown'] recently,” Perrotta told me. “And he was wearing a ‘New Jersey: Only the strong survive’ T-shirt. It was like some long lost brotherhood for us. There’s some conviction that it’s a place to be perversely proud of.”
Perrotta’s “Joe College” directly deals with this inferiority complex and sense of pride. In the novel, the young narrator Danny experiences a tender transition from working-class Jersey (he helps his father out with his lunch truck, serving office parks) to the wealth and sophistication of Yale University. It’s a universal class crisis, but in this case, something rooted in Jersey kitsch; the woman he’s dating from home is all about blue eye shadow and Springsteen songs (hint, hint). Somehow the trendier styles of perfect vintage dresses, as seen on the Yale girls, never made their way to the Jersey suburbs. And yet it’s hard not to find Danny’s success utterly gratifying. After all, look where Danny came from! Look what fashion horrors he endured! And he made it to Yale!
Ultimately, “The Sopranos” mines these same conflicts — it’s unclear just where Tony is more comfortable, sitting by the pool in his manicured backyard, or at his seedy strip club. The tensions between Carmela and the sophisticated Meadow, off to school at Columbia, referencing literary critics her mother never heard of, beautifully showed how little class differences sometimes have to do with money. In the last few episodes, with Johnny Sack wielding his New York boss status like a bloody club, it’s difficult not to feel the slight from the “big city” once again. At least this time we know fans of the show are feeling it for the first time, too. But what’s clear, from the accents to the clothing, is that Chase intended in “The Sopranos” an unabashed portrayal of the richness of these characters and the New Jersey landscape. The Jersey jokes exist in a more humanized Technicolor, one big, brilliantly fleshed-out stereotype — the guidos eat at crummy roadside diners, they go to therapy, get colitis, drive their cars all the time, wear truly amazing outfits and tell the New York boss, perhaps foolishly, “Fuck you.”
These aren’t new stereotypes. They’re the people who invade New York and Philadelphia via bridge or tunnel, or the hicks down south who wear “Welcome to the Jersey Shore. Now go home!” T-shirts. It’s hard not to get a tad defensive about the whole enterprise, or want to pick and choose which stereotypes are rooted in reality. It’s a challenge for New Jersey writers to find the complexity in a place that is usually glossed over with broad, dismissive strokes. But it’s also possible that in that endeavor, writers have lovingly pushed along the Jersey stereotypes, because in fact, there’s something within them that they hold dear.
Which brings us, inevitably, back to Springsteen. I always assumed that Bruce was New Jersey’s one untouchable — if anyone was on our side, it was he. Everyone loves Bruce, we think, and that makes his home state a lovable place too. Yet, according to my completely random and unofficial survey, Springsteen has a lot to do with both the state’s grungy image and, conversely, Jersey folks’ proud, somewhat beleaguered, gravely voiced perception of who they are.
“People from New Jersey create this Springsteen myth about themselves,” said Sam Lipsyte, author of “Venus Drive,” “The Subject Steve” and the forthcoming “Home Land,” which is about a down-and-out New Jersey high school graduate preparing to attend his reunion. “And then they pray that they don’t run into someone actually from New Jersey.”
Our mythology about New Jersey comes as much from Springsteen as it does from Roth, as it will, for a new generation, come from “The Sopranos” and the rest of the crop of young artists skewering and eulogizing their state. And even if, heaven forfend, the Jersey jokes disappear, it’s possible that our half-proud, half-ironic idea of New Jersey will remain strong. Springsteen is crucial to this idea of New Jersey’s blue-collar roots, its masculinity and authenticity, its us-against-the-world mentality, its rebelliousness — and also to the idea of youth, hard work, dreaming of a world beyond home and the bittersweetness of going back. In many ways, perhaps, as Junot Diaz’s T-shirt bragged, Springsteen is about a sense of small-state survival that Jersey folks cling to, even if where they grew up wasn’t so bad. Springsteen provides New Jersey natives with one thing the jokes and stereotypes never suggest it had a shred of: Romance.
We all stake our claim to the Springsteen myth. These days, when people ask where I’m from, I usually say, “A small town in New Jersey, just south of Asbury Park.” That’s true: Wall is a few towns down the shore from Asbury, though the two places — one white and middle class, the other racially mixed and somewhat rundown — have virtually nothing in common. Claiming I grew up near Asbury Park says very little about me. But I guess I want in on the Springsteen myth, too. I’m proud of the boardwalks and tussles with the cops and summer love and factories and badlands and blue-collar boys with hot cars — even if I never experienced any of it. And, besides, my mother did. She was born in Asbury Park. Close enough.