Pure Jersey




IN THE BEGINNING of William Giraldi’s memoir The Hero’s Body, he writes that his “hometown’s name, Manville, lets you know precisely what you’re getting: pure Jersey.” I grew up a town or two over, in Bridgewater, a place I think, admittedly, is like (or perhaps is?) where Daisy, the older woman he meets at the gym, resides — “much swankier than Manville, BMWs and Benzes dreaming in driveways, lit shrubbery that looked imported from the Orient.” I wanted, then, to talk a bit about class in the state, which I think is something that’s often overlooked in talking about literary work. I recall when Hurricane Floyd hit in the 1990s that Bound Brook (a poorer area) was decimated; people lost their homes, but where I was, the biggest hardship we faced, I believe, was that my mother had to bake a few extra batches of cupcakes for my class for my birthday, because school kept getting canceled, simply because the power was out.

I interviewed Giraldi by email.

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ALEX NORCIA: Despite its varied eccentricities and regional differences, Jersey very much has this reputation for being working class and, if I can go so far to say, as being somewhat masculine. Do you find that to be a fair assessment, and if so, how do you account for that being what’s best known about the state?

WILLIAM GIRALDI: That’s an accurate assessment, yes: a working-class, masculine state. You’ve probably seen that T-shirt with the state outline and the tag: New Jersey: Only the Strong Survive. It’s very much like that: the most densely populated state in the union where people are constantly grating against each another, nudging for more room. Plus the state is always fighting off its inferiority complex underneath its bigger brother, New York. The shopping malls alone are enough to brutalize an Olympian. Being from Bridgewater, you know what I mean: the Bridgewater Commons Mall has its own zip code.

The prevalence of Italian Americans in Jersey might have something to do with its reputation: we’re a colorful, demonstrative people, mostly Catholic, who tend to go into the trades, the manly arts. My family owned a construction business, and I grew up encircled by carpenters, plumbers, electricians, masons, car mechanics, backhoe operators, and also by women who were staunchly proud mothers and housewives and hairdressers and fingernail artists — men and women you didn’t want to tangle with, people for whom college was as distant as Alpha Centauri, and about as relevant. Each state has its regions of working-class heroes and villains, but because Jersey is so packed and so small, it can seem like one uniform working-class haven. Chris Christie is a tumescent, spot-on caricature of the New Jerseyan: loud, assertive, abrasive, underhanded, slippery, opportunistic, and yet beholden to no one. He’s an unrepentant charlatan, but every time I see him on TV it feels like home to me.

So it’s never seemed like a literary state to me, not in the way Massachusetts does, what with Emerson and Thoreau and Hawthorne, and Melville’s stint in western Massachusetts where he wrote his masterwork, plus Edgar Allan Poe was born here in Boston. Jersey of course has Whitman and Hart Crane, but one doesn’t feel Jersey in their work as one feels Massachusetts in Thoreau. The Newark, New Jersey, you see and feel in Philip Roth is many decades dead. Feelings, of course, are relative and not worth much in literary matters. But take Springsteen, say, and consider how much of Jersey you can feel in his art. In The Hero’s Body, I wanted to write a book that represents Jersey in all its aberrations and contradictions, its sin and its deliverance.

Along those same lines, I’ve always thought that there’s a certain self-mythologizing that happens to New Jersey, especially for one who grew up there and left (you’re in Boston now, and I’ve lived in New York for the past five years or so). Here’s a bit of history you include about Manville:

It was named for the Johns-Manville Corporation, which produced asbestos building materials that ravaged the lungs of its many works. The manufacturing plant, defunct by the time I was a child, sat on Main Street, blocks-long behind rusted fences, vacant but for the spirits of the dead flitting through those empty spaces in search of better air to breathe.

That section — especially the last bit about the “spirits of the dead” — captures the entire state’s ethos for me. It’s as if, at times, you are surrounded by a history you don’t even know happened, and then you have to deal with its repercussions — almost as if you have to deal with that history’s history. It has this sort of original sin, in that, at least I believed, I constantly had to prove why I belonged there, when perhaps I never did. What I’m getting at, really, is whether or not you believe Jersey breeds a particular nostalgia that exists nowhere else — that the only way to truly appreciate it is to have grown up there and then, ultimately, flee it. These characters — your characters, particularly the men in your story — don’t exist anywhere else, do they? Can they?

I’d like to think not. I can speak only through my own vista here, and that view agrees with you: I’ve lived out west in Colorado, and down south in South Carolina, and I’ve been in New England for the better part of 20 years now, plus I’ve spent time in almost every state in the union, and I’ve never met people like the robust Jerseyans I present in The Hero’s Body. I suppose working-class machismo is the same no matter where you are, but in Jersey that machismo is a sacral creed, not just a way of being but a way of believing, a red-meat worldview.

You weren’t alone in feeling you had to prove yourself there. The competitive pressures of Jersey, its pitiless attitudes, force you to feel that way. And over time those pressures create certain individuals the way water shapes rock. Whether or not the nostalgia you speak of is unique to Jersey — it feels that way, I know, but I’d bet that people everywhere feel the same nostalgia for their home states. It’s just that Jersey is adamant in forcing itself upon one’s personality, one’s most intimate selfhood. If you presented an Iowan next to a Floridian next to a Jerseyan, I bet that after preliminary hellos I’d be able to pick out the Jerseyan.

Regarding your idea about having to leave Jersey in order to see it clearly, the Italian writer Cesare Pavese has that great line: “One needs a town, if only for the pleasure of leaving it.” That’s probably true of every place: you must transcend it in order to ascertain it. I think of myself as a Bostonian now, but I’m mutedly proud to be from Jersey. No matter where else you go in the nation, no place is tougher than Jersey. I had to tamp down my personality when I left Jersey because I noticed that some weren’t used to such a demonstrative, assertive selfhood. My dearest friend, the writer Steve Almond, has been calling me “Close” for the last 13 years because I am, or was, always in your face, gesticulating and back-patting, making a performance out of being in the world. I’m too exhausted for that anymore (I have three little boys), but whenever I go home, I can register the slight change in me: my volume rises, my hand motions return, I drive a bit faster on highways, I put a touch more gel in my hair, and I drop the final “g” on gerunds.

I read Nick Ripatrazone’s piece on you in Literary Hub a month ago, and he focused a lot of attention on your Catholicism, which is implicit in the memoir but never rendered too explicit. Could you expand a bit more on how religion shaped you as a child, a teenager, and then as an adult? Are there any comparisons to be made from leaving the Church, say, and leaving the state? Another parallel I couldn’t shake — and this might be a bit of a stretch — is that when got you into bodybuilding you were sick and then wanted, in a sense, to be as well as possible. Is that not Catholicism in a nutshell: to be born sick and then ordered — demanded, forced, whatever you prefer — to be well?

Not a stretch at all: you’re dead on. I’m certain that Catholicism has a great deal to do with what we’re discussing here, about mythos and ethos and nostalgia. Catholicism breeds mythologizing, whether of the self or of the clan. It helps you to conceptualize yourself in grandiose and ostentatious terms, lets you feel part of ritual and pageantry and drama — the Mass is theater, and New Jerseyans are a theatrical people. I’m generalizing, of course, but not by much. Look at the men and women I write about in The Hero’s Body, young men with their muscles and their tans, young women with their emphatic hair and makeup and back tattoos — Jersey is a performative state with something to prove.

I’d never made that connection before, but you’re right: I left the Church when I left the state, so how can I deny the link between them? But one doesn’t ever really leave the Church, just as one never really exorcises Jersey from oneself: total emancipation, total exorcism is not possible. Once Catholicism gets its talons in you, it has you lifelong, regardless of whether or not you retain your piety. I have a riff in the book about bodybuilders in which I speak of our body mass as Mass, because for the believing and the lapsed Catholics among us, bodybuilding was both a form of homage to and escape from the flesh-centric myths of Catholicism. That’s undeniable.

In the second half of the book, about my father’s fatal crash racing motorcycles, I speak of revering his bike as if it were a crucifix, as True Cross, so fitting for a clan of Catholics. The instrument of my father’s death became our own totem of veneration and worship. My lack of belief didn’t fortify me against this morbidity, this Catholic fixation on flesh. The narrative drama of the Mass — music and ritual and pageantry, the grand architecture, the insistent crucifix behind the altar: it all helped to form the contours of my psyche. The Catholic is obsessive by nature, I think, and so a good deal of my memoir is about that obsessiveness: the re-creation, the playing out of the Passion concerning my father’s death, the view that the body’s anguish is its true expression, that pain is redemptive, and also the obsessiveness of the bodybuilder, the fixation on food and training and steroids, the dedication, the exaltation of flesh.

You’re in Boston now and I was an undergrad at BU (we have some interesting similarities), and I’ve always felt New Jersey and Massachusetts were similar, in that people who are from each place think it’s the best place ever. But I’ve also never understood why that’s the case in Massachusetts. It seems that, for natives, they love it simply because they love it. New Jersey, in my opinion, is different: natives defend it and love it because they have to, because everyone else in the country hates it, and loves to hate it. Do you find this to be true, and do you feel pop culture represents New Jersey in the correct light? Yes, I’m thinking of the Jersey Shore on MTV, but also the bodybuilding contest in Point Pleasant that you write about in the memoir.

Ah yes, Jersey Shore. Let’s remember that the numbskulls on that glowingly insipid show were from Long Island, not Jersey. The show was filmed at the Jersey shore, but those poor souls weren’t Jerseyans. Those people were acting; they were grotesque caricatures of the kind of citizens you see in Jersey. You aren’t like that, and neither am I, and neither are dozens of people we know. Now The Sopranos gets at something intrinsic to Jersey: the pitilessness I mentioned before, the competitiveness and assertiveness, the brutality of being, the violence and force of selfhood, an externalizing of the angry id. I don’t spend any time defending Jersey to people. I hear it a lot, “dirty Jersey,” and I think: Dirty, yes, and you don’t know the half of it.

What Massachusetts does have that Jersey doesn’t is the religion of baseball. When I came here 20 years ago, I was astounded by the maniacal attachment to the Red Sox. In Jersey, people root for the Yankees because they don’t have their own team, but what I’m talking about here in Massachusetts goes way beyond mere rooting. “Red Sox Nation” is their name for themselves but “Red Sox Church” would be more accurate. The citizens here are in a deeply worshipful relationship, and you see how the team has replaced God, how it fulfills that spiritual longing they have at their hub. It’s sublimation, too, all their competitive anxieties seeking vent at Fenway Park. I’ll never fully belong here until I embrace this damn baseball team, but, I tell you, I’m just not ready for another religion in my life.

I heard you on Brad Listi’s podcast talk about how you’ve always been attracted to Southern writers, such as Flannery O’Connor, and how you’ve never really written about Jersey before. Why now? Or why did it take you so long? Were you always just waiting to tell this story? And I’m also interested in the fact that it took the form of nonfiction — did you believe it was difficult to represent Jersey fictionally? Which, if I’m being honest, is usually how it’s being represented. Fictionally. It’s often never accurately portrayed.

I have a chapter in my first novel, Busy Monsters, that takes place in Jersey. The book is a rollicking comedy, and the chapter is about an enormous steroidal bodybuilder with two Asian girlfriends, and they try to rope my narrator, Charlie Homar, into an evening of sexual acrobatics. That was fun to write, insofar as writing can be fun for me — it’s usually a hellish slog. But I told Brad Listi that I’ve always been attracted to Southern writers because Southern literature is a literature of defeat, and I’ve spent half of my life feeling defeating by one thing or another: melancholy, anxiety, earning a living, the writing life, my father’s death, etc. Southerners are special; Faulkner and O’Connor alone comprise an enormous swath of American genius. Throw in Welty and Wolfe and McCullers, Harry Crews and Peter Taylor, Walker Percy and Allan Gurganus, and you have some of the most potent fiction ever composed on this American soil.

Why did it take me so long to write this fully about Jersey? Because The Hero’s Body chose its own pace, dictated its own terms, and it decided to take 16 years to form. I couldn’t have written about my father’s death as fiction. The first half, about my teenage bodybuilding years, I probably could have fictionalized — Harry Crews did it in his novel Body, though it’s his least successful book. But my father’s fatal crash? There wasn’t any way I could fictionalize that and feel okay with it. The story of my father’s death always sang to me as memoir. Imaginative assertion would have ruined my memories of him, and it’s immensely important that I remember him and his life accurately. Fiction does that without fail, replaces your memories. He was killed at 47 years old, so I have only half a life to remember. I need to hold onto the accuracy of my memory. I can’t have him fade from me. I’m terrified of forgetting what his voice sounded like.

In six years, I’ll be the age my father was at his death, and I’m bracing for that, wondering how it will hit me, how it will resurrect my grief, and perhaps bring home my father’s death in a way I haven’t felt since the year of his crash. I recall those refulgent lines from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet called “Inclusiveness”: “What man has bent o’er his son’s sleep, to brood / How that face shall watch his when cold it lies?” I wonder if my father was ever that man, if he ever suspected his life would be cut off halfway.

The Hero’s Body is essentially a tale in two parts: your early pursuit of bodybuilding/eventual full embrace of literature, and then the death of your father. It might be an unjust comparison — and you may not have read the book — but I can’t seem to forget it. There’s a moment in Justin St. Germain’s Son of a Gun, his memoir about his mother’s violent death at the hands of his stepfather, when he admits that what shook him the most when he learned of her passing is that he always suspected — no, he knew — that she would die from a gun. It was eerie because his paranoia — this bizarre premonition — became true. I’m wondering if you always had a sense of how your father would die, if the machismo, this masculine code he and the rest of the men in your family lived by, would be what ended his life.

No, I never had that premonition, because my father had stopped riding by the time I was born, and he didn’t ride throughout my childhood because he couldn’t afford a bike, and he was exhausted being a single dad. I’d been out of the house for two years already when he started riding again in 1995, and we saw one another several times a year. In those few years before his death, I’d lived in three different states, and so I rarely had any accurate idea of the vicissitudes of my father’s life. We exchanged letters and phone calls, I remember, and we emailed, too, in the months before his death, but I just didn’t have any idea of how serious those Sunday rides were — how fatally serious. I knew how passionate he was about the bike, sure, and about his racing regalia, the custom-made suit, the helmet and boots, how he had modified the bike, etc. I just didn’t guess at the intensity and seriousness of those rides, the extent to which he lusted after velocity, needed to soar after so many sober years of responsibility.

And what if I had known about his road racing, the Sunday madness, the ungodly speed? You can’t yank away someone’s fervor or mitigate it in any way. It just can’t be done. When you crave something that maniacally, you will have it, one way or another. Some fires just can’t be put out.

I was raised in much the same way as you were (my father is alive, but he lives in Georgia, and we don’t speak, really, any longer). There’s a general fear I had when I was a kid, mainly wanting to please him, prove myself, while also fearing him. Furthermore, I got the sense, in a family of Italian Americans, that this sort of silence (an almost omertà-like code, if you will), pervaded everything. After my father left, no one would talk about his divorce, his criminal activity, his new wife, etc. Your mother left when you were very young, too, though she’s of course not the focus of the book. But she’s there, as a subtext/implication, I think, though you say that in order to tell her tale you’ll need the mercy to tell it. Not to go too far into regrets — I don’t want to necessarily ask you what you regret not saying to your father, to others — but I’m curious about what it was like for you to live in a world where so much was hidden. Is this why you turned to writing? To say all you weren’t able to say?

Funny, my father’s favorite Chuck Norris movie is called Code of Silence. No, I didn’t turn to writing because I felt silenced in my family. Writing chose me when I was making plans for other things — I didn’t want this scribbler’s life, and each day I wish I had some other skill, something less lonesome, less onerous. While I was growing up I didn’t necessarily know that I lived in a household of reticence, of manly wordlessness. It was only upon reflection, in the process of composing The Hero’s Body, that I was able to apprehend my upbringing for what it was. My family was pretty standard in its many silences, I’m sure: most families don’t discuss their pain because the discussion interferes with living, with getting on, with getting things done. And there’s an erroneous notion that to talk about the various anguishes and betrayals in a family is to make them manifest, make them real. Just ignore them and they’ll go away. But of course they never do. Ignore them and they grow mightier in retribution.

I don’t mind your asking about regret, but I want to distinguish between regret and remorse because they’re often mistaken for one another: remorse is for something you did, regret for what you left undone. I have remorse, things I wish I could take back, words I spoke to my father in anger, awful behavior that hurt him. I wish I had been a better teenager, more sympathetic to his struggles. But I can’t regret not convincing my father to abandon his joy, because I simply didn’t know about its intensity. And I do mean joy, not enjoyment. Enjoyment is something you possess, but joy possesses you. My father was wholly possessed by racing those machines. It was a spiritual pursuit for him, a religious endeavor, a common man’s pursuit of glory.

You mentioned the isolation of writing, and that seems a great contrast to bodybuilding, which you speak of throughout the memoir as an artistic pursuit. I’m wondering about the different forms of devotion you need to have in respect to both bodybuilding and writing.

“Devotion” is a religious term, and it’s the right term in this context, indeed. When I handed the first draft of The Hero’s Body to my editor, he called me and said that he finally understood my devotion to literature, my intense delving into certain authors, my obsessiveness with language that makes it so hard for me to write. I’d rather do almost anything other than write: read, walk, bike, grapple around with my boys. I’m lazy, is the thing. Walter Benjamin said that a writer proceeds as a man digging a ditch, but I’d rather dig an actual ditch any day. The Hero’s Body took me 16 years to finish and it’s not even 300 pages. Why did it take me so long? The words — I was straining after the right ones, a language to match the material, a language that was capable of rappelling into the dark caverns to which I needed access — surprising words that were also the right words in context.

There’s a riff in the book where I relate the bodybuilder’s physique to a paragraph, the body as semantics, the body as sentence, if you will, its demonstrable syntax and vocabulary, or muscle tissue as diction, the punctuation marks between muscles, the commas and semicolons of tendons, the style of muscle striation. The bodybuilder’s physique is the symbol of the things it communicates and also the things themselves: grace, power, fluidity, etc. In the classical notion of Western art, form took precedence over content, but for the bodybuilder, as for literature, form is always fused to content. Its style is its substance.

You mentioned how different the bodybuilder is from the writer but they’re kin, I think, in that each is pursuing an aim in isolation, each is a solitary endeavor, not a team sport. So the forms of devotion aren’t really different, I’d say: each is a monastic calling, each requires a certain degree of anguish in order to succeed. If writing a book isn’t hard, you aren’t doing it right.

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Alex Norcia lives in Brooklyn, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The MillionsElectric LiteratureThe RumpusSlantWord RiotEclectica, and elsewhere. His day job is at night: he works in the evening as a News Assistant on the International desk at The New York Times.

 

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