By Jenny Hayes
Rich Ferguson’s debut novel New Jersey Me is a coming-of-age tale set in an intriguingly dysfunctional ‘80s South Jersey town. The narrator, Mark, has a chaotic home life. His mother moved out of the house when he was fifteen, leaving him alone with his dad, a tough-talking, somewhat shady police chief, and the good things in his life are few and far between. He and his best friend Jimmy are even convinced they’re cursed by a “pet jinx” that causes all animals in their care to meet a premature demise. The two teens spend most of their time listening to music, getting wasted, and trying to have as good of a time as they can in Blackwater, a town Mark describes as “just strip malls, gun shops, radiation, and funeral homes.”
Mark’s first-person narration creates a cinematic feel, full of interesting details: Nagel paintings and Madonna t-shirts, pot plants named after Tolkien characters, a friendly weirdo who lives in a shack by the lake and purchases the boys’ used socks, a Ouija board that always comes up with “EAT.” His descriptions are vivid, and always filtered through his particular point of view, even at their most lyrical. “That ocean: a shimmering semi-slumbering beast whose steady hum reminded me of that final sustaining chord in the Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life.’” But as perceptive as Mark can be about his surroundings, he’s less so about his own motivations, and sometimes fills us in on what’s happened without bringing us in for the full emotional ride. I occasionally wished I could get inside his head a little more so I could understand his decisions and reactions in a deeper way. In one scene we see Mark letting his guard down as he tentatively gets closer to his mother, then see him put it back up at the slightest hint that she’s pulling away; that’s understandable, but I wanted more insight into what Mark was feeling in those shifts. Even so, the hesitation or inability to dive deep into his inner world feels true to Mark’s character. It’s a learned way of coping with the traumas in his life, and an effect of the various drugs he’s on.
Mark’s relationship with his mother seems always to have been somewhat fraught, but he feels a purer sense of love from his grandmother, and from his first girlfriend, Callie. Callie has scars and a missing leg from a car accident, and seems to represent the goodness in the world to Mark, but in an imperfect and human way that Mark respects. Looking at the unscarred side of her face, Mark muses that the “flawless side of Callie was the side I’d imagined she’d always wanted in life. The Callie of Purity and Promise. The Callie of Unblemished Porcelain Skin. Then she turned back to me, and I, once again, witnessed the Callie I so admired: The Callie of Damage and Dignity, the Callie of the Huge Heart, Wobbly Walk, and Off-Kilter Smile.”
Throughout the book Mark claims he wants out of Blackwater, but he makes little effort to leave. Several times he considers just driving out of town and not turning back, but isn’t quite able to do so. He seems to see leaving as an all-or-nothing deal, and I wondered why he never considered a shorter trip away—maybe a road trip with Jimmy or even just a weekend in NYC. In any case, we can see how it’s an easier choice for Mark to go with the dead-end life of drugs and easy kicks right in front of him, rather than making a plan to get out. But I don’t think easier is all of it. Mark professes to hate Blackwater and what it has to offer, but its seediness has an allure that he finds hard to resist. Baby, who he first meets in high school as the stunning girlfriend of the bully Terry, exemplifies this allure: “Gone the illuminated beauty I’d so adored back in high school… Now Baby was just static. Pure static. But I didn’t care. I’d take that static with me anywhere.”
That’s the most interesting tension of the story for me—the push and pull of Mark’s conflicting desires: wanting to get out and find a better life, but also feeling the dark lure of desperation, the pleasure to be had in saying fuck it, the self-destructive streak shared by most of the town’s residents. In large part, New Jersey Me is a document of Mark’s struggle with his own death wish. He experiences moments of pure joy—time with Callie or his grandma, getting a hug from Mr. Jeepers, a chimpanzee that he and Jimmy drunkenly stole from the carnival. But once those moments are gone, Mark goes back to feeling that happiness is something “completely alien to my way of life.” He feels toxic, but eventually he begins to see a way out, understanding that his dissatisfaction “wasn’t so much the alcohol. Wasn’t even the pet jinx. It was more the way I’ve been living.” Having come to terms with the “New Jersey Me,” he’s ready to figure out what’s next.
Jenny Hayes lives in Seattle and is an MFA candidate in the low-residency creative writing program at UC Riverside–Palm Desert. Her fiction has appeared in New Flash Fiction Review, Litro NY, Jenny Magazine, Spartan, and elsewhere, and her chapbook “Dear Rosie AKA Ro-Ho-Zee AKA Rosarita Refried Beans,” featuring an illustrated story about junior high and David Bowie, was published in 2014 by alice blue books.