A passage of Frederick Reiken's novel "The Lost Legends of New Jersey" so accurately re-creates the world's perception of the Jersey Shore that a grumpy native could be forgiven for feeling betrayed by the author. "In July they woke one morning to find the beach covered in syringes," he writes. "It made the news -- hundreds of plastic little syringes without needles. Apparently, they'd been illegally dumped at sea. The syringes were reported from Sandy Hook all the way to Manasquan."
Reiken's fictional Rubin family was vacationing in the late '70s, in Allenhurst, not far from poor, infested Manasquan, near where I grew up -- a tiny town of tiny houses squished so close together that if a surfboard leaning up against one house fell, it could smack into the wood siding of another. Like many Shore towns -- they're all distinct, and yet they're all "the Shore" -- Manasquan is a sweet village populated by blondes and home to lively bars named Leggett's, the Osprey, O'Neill's. There, bachelorettes can do tequila shots to "Thunder Road," "Living on a Prayer" and just about any song from the 1980s.
But -- damn stupid syringes! Always getting in the way of the good stuff.
Of course, in Reiken's bestselling, often mournful 2000 book, the Shore's peculiarities aren't limited to this particularly memorable ocean detritus. Reiken also memorializes the bacteria-laced water that almost prevents young boys from bodysurfing during their fleeting summers of freedom; the rickety bars called Tides where mothers get drunk and then later arrested for driving while intoxicated; the greasy cuisine glistening under fluorescent lights at take-out places like the Windmill in Long Branch (awesome hot dogs). And it all adds up to as dead-on a rendering of the nation's armpit as any you'll find. Overall, Reiken pays respects to the bad behavior that the Jersey Shore, with its unremarkable beach beauty and seedy boardwalks, salutes you for indulging in. "They all played Skee-Ball for a while, then walked the boards, acting like jerks, as they often did," Reiken writes of his young boys, and nothing ever seemed as true, and weirdly wonderful, about the place.
Many people, those coming from Philadelphia or New York anyway, think of Ocean City or Wildwood or Long Beach Island when they hear the words "Jersey Shore." Or they think of Springsteen, and therefore a mythic place that may or may not exist. But that region -- the once syringe-infested landscape of "Lost Legends," which includes Asbury, Belmar, Spring Lake, perhaps Point Pleasant -- certainly still exists, in all its funnel cake and cotton candy glory. Down this shore, New Yorkers and Northern Jerseyites are called "Bennys," and locals are branded "clamdiggers." Million-dollar homes in Spring Lake border raucous, Benny-ville rentals in Belmar. Arcades dot Ocean Avenue, along with prissy beach and pool clubs. Jeeps, not always Camaros, cruise the highways and side streets, pretty girls' long, straight hair whipping around the tanned faces of lean, jockish guys. They may or may not ever leave home.
When we think of New Jersey literature, however, it's Philip Roth's North Jersey, from "Portnoy's Complaint" (1969) to "The Plot Against America" (2004), that first comes to mind. James Kaplan's "Two Guys From Verona" (1998), with its hapless adult male characters fumbling around in the shadow of New York City, also depicts the kind of North Jersey suburbia made all the more miserable by its undeniable inferiority complex. It's harder to identify why exactly the comedies of Tom Perrotta, "Bad Haircut" (1994) and "Joe College" (2000), seem so drenched in Jerseyness, but in "Bad Haircut," when a bunch of kids head to a bleak mini-mall parking lot to meet a human hot dog, one is immediately convinced that their brand of middle-class adolescent excitement over meeting a supposed "celebrity" could only happen to the oddly isolated and easily charmed natives of the Garden State.
But as anyone from there will tell you, New Jersey is a bunch of states within a state, each special in its own twisted way. While Reiken discovers the Shore in the details, Richard Ford, in "The Sportswriter" (1986) and "Independence Day" (1995), reveals its soul, something admittedly harder to find amid the ridiculousness. But Ford's Frank Bascombe is suffering through a Nowheresville of his own existence and Jersey is the perfect setting for such a crisis: "a plain, unprepossessing and unexpectant landscape," he writes, with doom. After a description of the Shore's "empty out-of-season vegetable stands, farmettes, putt-putts and cheerless Ditch Witch dealers," he reassures us: "Vice implies virtue to me, even in landscape, and virtue value. An American would be crazy to reject such a place, since it is the most diverting and readable of landscapes, and the language is always American."
When Frank's friend confesses to being gay, after a day of fishing in Brielle with his Divorced Men's group, he does it at "a barny old hiproofed fisherman's roadhouse with a red BAR sign on top." That dive may be fictional but it reminded me of what would now be Union Landing or Harpoon Willy's, restaurants overlooking the Manasquan River where you can sit for hours, drink a lot, and watch the boats go by. They're the kinds of local haunts that, when you pull into the parking lot, white gravel crunches beneath your car wheels -- the sound of a hearty welcome and later a tipsy farewell. "It is a place where you'd be happy to consider yourself a regular," Ford writes, "though when all is said and done you have nothing at all in common with anyone there except some speechless tenor of spirit only you know a damn thing about."
Much of the Shore is more built up now, and even the humbler towns, blissfully shocked by the real estate boom, strive to mirror the moneyed splendor of Spring Lake rather than the folksiness of Ford's old Brielle. New, super-fancy houses have sprung up on the oceanfront, wedged in between the old bungalows, all so one window can steal a paltry view of the sea. (That sea, by the way, is now always pretty clean.) But it still feels the same as home always does, or perhaps as the Jersey Shore, particularly, always will -- pizza-and-fries combo meals in cardboard, babies happily munching on the sand, and freckled women lounging in rainbow-colored beach chairs, sunscreenless and squinting contentedly into the sun.