Pain and joy mingle in ‘The Lost Legends of New Jersey,’ Frederick Reiken’s excellent coming of age tale

February 5, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 5, 2015

Frederick Reiken’s wonderful 2000 novel, The Lost Legends of New Jersey, is the tale of a fractured Garden State family in the early 1980s.

Teenager Anthony Rubin and his parents, Michael and Jess Rubin, are three of the book’s main characters; the fourth is Juliette Dimiglio, the young neighbor who fascinates and frightens Anthony. The novel explores the quartet’s longing, loves and losses, which are often but not always romantic.

A younger Michael ardently pursues Jess, the product of an Orthodox Jewish couple who frown upon their daughter’s rebellious ways — she becomes a high school cheerleader and marries Michael, who hails from a less-observant Jewish family.

The marriage eventually fractures because Michael is inherently unable to deal with Jess’s unhappiness, mental illness and physical and emotional distancing. The doctor launches a reckless affair with Claudia Berkowitz, a family friend. Jess tolerates the infidelity for years until she can bear it no longer; one day, she drives over to the Berkowitzes and starts throwing rocks at their house.

Her husband, her son, Claudia and Claudia’s son, Jay, all watch, aghast, as Jess kneels on the lawn and cries. After she climbs back into her car, she drives in circles across the Berkowitzes’ grass before continuing on to Florida.

There, Jess works to piece together a new life, while Michael and Anthony — who effectively loses his mother and his best friend in one stroke — struggle to adjust to life without her. (Michael’s older sister, Danielle, does as well, but Reiken sidelines her for much of the book.) Besides his mother, Anthony pines for two unattainable young women: Alex, one of the managers of his high school hockey team, and Juliette, who’s haunted by problems that are even worse than his own.

Juliette’s mother has committed suicide. Her father is a chronic gambler who continually falls behind on his payments to mobsters. Juliette hates everything about her life — her dad, her mom (whom she nonetheless misses) and the meathead football star she dates who’s prone to violent outbursts.

Even minor characters in the book wrestle with deep troubles. When Anthony is hospitalized with a knee injury, he gets a roommate named Chris Robbins, a teenager who is literally wasting away. (It’s not clear whether Robbins is one of the first Americans to contract AIDS or if he suffers from another malady.) Claudia Berkowitz can’t shake dreams and thoughts of Joey Malinowski, with whom she had a passionate love affair before she chose to marry Douglas Berkowitz, an older businessman who could give her a stable, comfortable life.

In a chance encounter at a Florida airport bar, the divorced Jess sees Eddie Fischer, her high school boyfriend. Anthony, who’s about to fly back to New Jersey, witnesses the impromptu reunion:

Eddie’s eyes fill with something I don’t recognize. It’s more than longing — it’s delirium and abandon. I’ve never seen anyone look this way at my mother.

“Where are you headed?” she asks.

“Back to New York,” Eddie says. “La Guardia. I recently moved out to Long Island.”

“Why did you move there?” my mother asks.

Eddie hesitates. He says, “Linda, my second wife. She’s from there. She owns a flower store in Great Neck.”

My mother looks away to hide her disappointment. When she turns back, she says, “That’s great.” Eddie nods strangely and motions to the bartender.

……

He looks at me and says, “I knew your mom in high school. All us dumb guys were always following her around. She was an angel.” Eddie nods.

I say, “So how was she an angel?”

Eddie glances at my mother. He laughs and says, “We used to call your mother Hep. That’s because she acted just like Audrey Hepburn. That kind of angel.”

“Who’s Audrey Hepburn?” I ask.

“Tell me you’re kidding.”

“She’s an actress,” my mother says. “She’s still in movies sometimes now, but in the sixties she was more famous. She’s gotten older.”

“She was like no one on this earth,” says Eddie. “You took one look at Audrey Hepburn and your head would spin.”

Back in New Jersey, Michael is torn between his longing for the unattainable Jess, her equally unattainable sister, with whom he stole an illicit kiss when he was still married, and other women in his orbit, such as a single younger doctor at his hospital.

Michael sees Jess’s older sister, Leah Kleinfeld, at the hospital where he works. She is there to visit Paul Haney, the Irish-Catholic car dealer who is Leah’s b’shert — a Yiddish word meaning soulmate. Both Leah and Paul are married to, and have children with, someone else; only through happenstance is Leah allowed to spend a few minutes mourning with Paul’s body after his family terminates life support following his stroke.

Michael is probably the least romantic of these characters — he’s a dull family man whose sole obvious extravagance, his infidelity, destroyed his family. Even so, he has tender moments, some of which revolve around his brother, who died of leukemia at age 14, and his widowed father, Max, who talks of marrying a fellow resident of his nursing home despite being in his 80s.

One reason this book resonated with me so much is that, in time, space and culture, it’s close to home. I grew up a little to the north of the New Jersey town where the Rubins live, and I’m not quite as old as Anthony and Danielle are, but in general, the New York City bedroom community of these thoroughly assimilated American Jews seemed quite familiar. I never experienced anything quite like the eerie scene in which Anthony, Danielle and their friends get lost and break down while driving home from a Rush concert at the Meadowlands, but it had a very authentic feel to me.

In the end, Reiken suggests that while pain is inevitable, life also contains moments of beauty and epiphany, and it is these precious occasions that we must cherish. I highly recommend The Lost Legends of New Jersey.

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