There is a sadness to New Jersey. If you’ve lived there you know what I’m talking about. It’s hard to see past the state borders. Things outside of New Jersey just don’t seem possible. Maybe that is why, too often, people never leave New Jersey. They usually wind up just staying put, residing two towns over from where they grew up, still hanging out with the same high school friends. As they get older, their worldview may expand, but often it’s too late. New Jersey has them. To leave it all behind would be to rip themselves from the womb. I was lucky enough to leave when I was 18. Looking back on those that didn’t, I realized that was the sadness of New Jersey: being trapped in place that never offered much promise to begin with. Seeing it now, it always feels like the circus just left town, a pale memory of it drifting down the turnpike.
That sense of sadness is all over Alex Austin’s The Red Album of Asbury Park. It is in the setting: Springsteen-land in the late 1960s, a once thriving seaside getaway, now a rundown hulk of decaying buildings, degenerates, dive bars, thieves, decrepit amusements, gangsters, and junkies. (Go there now and you’ll see not much has changed, except the amusements are gone). It is also in the main character. Vet Sam Nesbitt has just come back from Vietnam. He’s one of the lucky ones. The horrors of war have given him a worldview that goes beyond Ocean Avenue. He wants out. He wants to make something of himself, to escape the ghosts of days past, and not become another lost cause walking the streets of Asbury Park. That’s more than once can say of his binge-drinking mother, his deceased father (who had his own secrets), and his unmotivated brother (or perhaps just motivated in the wrong directions).
Nesbitt’s hope is music. He has the goods as a guitar player and harbors dreams of that hit album that will get him the hell out of New Jersey. Except the music is too much of an escape. It is a pipe dream that bursts whenever confronted by all the obstacles surrounding Sam. Austin never once over-glorifies Sam’s pursuit of musical stardom. Instead, as any musician would attest, Sam’s efforts become an endless series of letdowns — bad gigs, continuous debt, medical mishaps, band breakups, missed opportunities –that far outweigh those nights where everything goes right.
Most importantly, Austin nails New Jersey. Sam’s dreams are dashed not because he can’t cut it as a musician — if anyone deserves to make it, he does — but because he runs face first into those obstacles each time. Sam has his dreams, but no actual hope. The dreams are merely a way to escape what ultimately is the grim reality facing him: a dead-end town with too many obstacles and not enough opportunity.
Often, novels about musicians fall apart when it comes to what should be the easiest part: the music. Writers tend to make the mistake of focusing too much on the music and not enough on the life of the musicians. It gives a story too much hokiness, especially when written by a non-musician. Too much focus on the flow of songs and how adeptly the characters are playing them and not enough focus on what that music means to the musicians in question. Austin takes a different tact. Sam’s escape into music (and his pursuit of being rock star) is important, but rendered in broad strokes rather than specifics. It is not what makes the character live and breathe in the reader’s mind. He wants to be big — Pete Townshend big — but he has to survive Asbury Park first. Throughout the novel, no matter how hard Sam pushes towards the dream, his family, or the local gangsters, or the women who don’t want him as much as he wants them, pull the bottom out from under him, dropping him to the pavement. Each time he dusts himself off and jumps back into the fray. The circus had left Asbury Park years ago and Sam’s struggle to resurrect his musical dreams make him sad, but also heroic. He’s the only guy in town who hasn’t given up even if he is the only one who knows it’s a worthless to even try.
If that’s not a novel about New Jersey, I don’t know what is. In The Red Album of Asbury Park, Alex Austin has crafted a sad postcard from the Garden State, but one worth reading.