The author, circa 1976, on the jetty in Long Branch, New Jersey.
When I was a boy in the late 70s and early 80s, my friends and I would sit on the beach in the heat of summer and watch the garbage barges leaving New York Harbor. The barges looked immense. They had to be, since they carried the thousands of daily tons of whatever New York City’s offices and factories and seven-million citizens no longer wanted. The barges traveled south, away from Long Island and toward New Jersey — toward us — and then out to sea for exactly twelve miles, the government-approved distance. There, they would dump their cargo into the water and, unburdened, return to port.
In 1986, Congress would increase the minimum dumping distance to 106 miles and begin tightening restrictions on what materials — sewage sludge, industrial waste — were permissible to dispose of in the water. Prior to that, however, my Jersey Shore childhood was punctuated by beach closings. Even on days when the green flags flew over the lifeguard bleachers, signaling that the beach was open for business, the water often appeared brown and sudsy. The incoming tide regularly deposited, in addition to the rocks, seaweed, and shells, a heap of man-made junk. We’d hear and pass along stories of unfortunates who’d stepped on syringes and ended up with hepatitis or worse. I still don’t know if there was any truth to these rumors, or whether it was all wholesale, razor-in-the-Halloween-candy legend. What I do know is that one summer we were advised through some official channel to wear socks when walking on the sand. Any fish we caught were not to be eaten.
It wasn’t always this way. In the years between World Wars, the Monmouth County town where I grew up had been a pristine, serene antidote to New York City living. Millionaire Hubert Templeton, president of F.W. Woolworth Co., built his home there. The 52-room mansion later served as Woodrow Wilson’s summer estate. For an antidote to the antidote of serenity, you needed only to travel a few miles south, where the more festive Asbury Park, with its casino and amusement rides and beachfront convention center, hosted half a million vacationers each summer.
We kids of the 70s and 80s didn’t know our place’s history. We just loved the place — yet we sensed that if our slice of the Jersey Shore had ever had a heyday, we’d missed it. By the time we came along, the shore had become a locus of nostalgia, a place perpetually in a process of recovery while, paradoxically, deriving self-definition and even pride from its vacancy and decay. And we knew it. We knew it without knowing we knew it. It’s why we swam in the sudsy ocean and took our sock-wearing in stride. It’s why a fishing pier’s transition to honky-tonk theme park felt more profound and symbolic than the concomitant restoration to the Statue of Liberty twenty or so miles to the north. And it’s why, just a few years later, the fire that leveled that theme park, pier and all, felt like a sad but obligatory chapter in the region’s longer narrative of almosts and might-have-beens.
In her 1956 essay “Place in Fiction,” Eudora Welty makes the hard-to-refute claim that “feelings are all bound up in place.” After moving away from New Jersey at the age of thirty to attend graduate school in the Midwest, I found that the stories I was writing were, among other things, attempts to evoke, or unbind, the feelings of a place I had internalized in my childhood. The book I was writing, beyond relating the stories of individual characters, would tell the story of my particular stretch of the Jersey Shore, a landscape replete with emotional and narrative fruit that seemed abundant, ripe, and all mine.
Then, just as I had finished the manuscript, MTV’s Jersey Shore became the hot center of reality television.
USA Today reports that as many as six different TV networks are currently taking advantage of New Jersey’s “fertile territory for reality TV.” There is Bravo’s Real Housewives of the Jersey Shore and Style’s Jerseylicious and Oxygen’s Jersey Couture and more. But the cornerstone of all this programming is Jersey Shore. Reality television is, we all know by now, a deeply distorting lens, but it nevertheless is a lens looked through in large numbers. Season Two of Jersey Shore routinely attracted over five million viewers per episode. As I finalized revisions to my book, I wondered how readers’ perceptions of the place I had spent years writing about were possibly being shaped by MTV producers and the antics of people named Snooki and The Situation.
Before dismissing this concern out of hand, consider the Deep South. If you haven’t spent much time there, ask yourself what comes to mind when you think about Mississippi. What about Alabama? A writer setting her work in the Deep South must somehow deal with our culture’s near-ubiquitous representation of that region as a place of ignorance and intolerance.
Conversely, many of my beginning creative-writing students from Mississippi, the state in which I now live and work, reveal in their stories their own media-culled impressions of the North. Particularly common is a representation of New York City as an exciting but ultimately soulless metropolis whose opportunities in business and the arts are more than negated by its dearth of personal warmth, neighborliness, and, above all, appreciation of family.
It seemed only fair to conclude that the explosion of Jersey-centered reality TV programming must be having some effect on people’s perceptions about my home state, for better or — I had to assume — worse. I say “assume” because until only recently I’d never actually watched an episode of Jersey Shore, despite having grown up only a handful of miles from the first season’s epicenter, Seaside Heights — a beach, incidentally, that I had never actually set foot on. Even in the 1980s, Seaside Heights was synonymous with hard partying. The same could not be said of me. One spring day in high school, some older kids were going to cut school and drive down there for the day. My parents wouldn’t let me go. That I asked if I could cut school that day tells all you need to know.
When I finally caught a few episodes of Jersey Shore, I found the show to be a perfectly entertaining “who’s angry at and/or hooking up with whom” bit of fluff, despite the profusion of Italian-American stereotypes. As with most reality shows, it reveals scant irony or awareness of its own absurdism. It carries on as if the stakes are always high even when they aren’t.
Yet for a program titled Jersey Shore, the episodes I watched were remarkably nonspecific geographically. Most of the locations — the interior of a house, the interior of a bar, the interior of another bar — could be set anywhere. Yet the term “Jersey Shore,” and all that it implies, evidently mattered enough that the show kept its title in the second season even though a) nearly all its cast hails from New York, and b) it was taped entirely in Florida.
Where Jersey Shore seems to evoke its strongest sense of place is in its transitional flourishes between scenes — a lone seagull, a roller coaster car, slats of a boardwalk — that are edited to look as if the tape were film and the film were old and damaged. Recently, my father had his father’s old home movies converted to DVD, and that’s what these transitional shots were made to look like: faded film from the 1940s, a presumably simpler time when a seagull could catch a crab in peace and there were no screaming amplifiers or random hookups. (There was only a World War.)
At first glance, you could miss these transitional shots entirely. At second glance, they smack of crude manipulation, a direct vein to feelings of nostalgia. But there’s a third glance in which, with these hackneyed beach shots, the show is doing exactly what the actual Jersey Shore itself does so well: promulgating its types, using nostalgia as currency, evoking an idealized past as a legitimate, essential aspect of its identity. This is to say that Jersey Shore — much as I might not want to admit it — does, in fact, capture something truthful about the Jersey Shore.
As I was reading over the page proofs to my story collection, it occurred to me that my Jersey Shore simultaneously has very much and very little to do with the actual Jersey Shore. It’s an amalgam of the real (the granite seawall, a stromboli restaurant called Stuff Yer Face), the altered (rival shopping malls, a beachfront theme park), and the totally fabricated (a prosthetic supply shop, an apartment complex where rabbits talk and babies predict the future). A fictional place might need to seem real, but verisimilitude alone isn’t enough: it also needs to be useful. It needs to have in it all that the story demands, a concept best illustrated not by William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but rather by Matt Groening’s town of Springfield, state unknown, home of the Simpsons — a place we perceive as any-town, USA, despite its having a nuclear power plant, harbor, gorge, lighthouse, international airport, and, in one episode, monorail system.
When we set a work of fiction in a real place, we do so hoping that those unfamiliar with the place will come to know it as we do, and that those who already know it will recognize in our depiction something familiar and true. But place’s allegiance in fiction is ultimately to the story, not to its own exactitude. Tobias Wolff, in an interview, makes the easy-to-forget observation that in fiction, all settings — even real ones — are imaginative constructions. “The London of Charles Dickens is not London, it’s a London that is in his mind and his spirit, his way of looking at the world. That’s his London.” He goes on to call the American West his own “mythologized place.” Wolff isn’t pooh-poohing such things as research and exactness, or excusing errors of fact. Rather, he’s reminding us that place in fiction is ultimately a topography not of the physical world but rather of the impressions of the physical world on the writer.
The mere existence of the show Jersey Shore irked me initially because I figured that it would flatten into cliché the place in which my feelings were all bound up. What I failed to grasp was that my mythologized place could never be found on TV, any more than it could be found on a map. That’s because there are as many Jersey Shores — and Londons and American Wests and New Yorks and Mississippis — as there are individual consciousnesses upon which these places leave their lasting impressions. All we can do is tap into memory and the imagination and write the truths that lie there.
Image courtesy the author