THE LOST LEGENDS OF NEW JERSEY By Frederick Reiken Harcourt 312 pp., $24
Frederick Reiken's new novel reminded me of two chilling conversations I had with teen-agers.
The first happened more than 15 years ago. A listless young woman I was tutoring interrupted our lesson and said, "I think my mother is crazy."
"Oh, don't worry," I laughed. "Everybody thinks their mom is crazy."
"No," she said, "I think mine is really not right."
Having spoken to her mother several times, I had come to the same troubling conclusion, but I had no idea how to counsel this girl.
The second conversation took place just last month. I was having lunch with an old student, and we were talking about her classmates' lack of interest in religion.
"You can't imagine," she said, "how many of my friends have walked in on one of their parents having an affair."
How does a young person struggle to grow up under the shadow of a mentally or morally unbalanced parent? Reiken's "Lost Legends of New Jersey" goes a long way toward answering that question in a way that's sometimes encouraging and often heartbreaking.
The protagonist, Anthony Rubin, is a Jewish boy burdened and blessed with a deep sympathy for others. He's wise beyond his age, but he's still an eager, anxious boy, obsessed with hockey, full of excitement and energy and longing.
"Lost Legends" is a collection of tender stories about Anthony's teenage years, years that witness his father's affair with a neighbor, his mother's nervous breakdown, and finally the collapse of their marriage.
I know this hardly sounds like a fun read, but "Lost Legends" is a witty novel that bribes us to accept its painful moments with the sheer delight of unlikely romance.
The novel opens one summer on the Jersey Shore when 13-year-old Anthony and his best friend have to deal with the awkward sight of their parents cheating on each other. As so many young people do, Anthony manages to keep that unpleasant part of his life neatly offstage while he hangs around with his friends, plays junior lifeguard, and stares wistfully at the Yiddish constellations. "Here, to the north," his father says, "we can see Maury, the Disappointment. You'll always find it near the luminous Sophie Schatzberg, also known as the Great Kvetch."
As his mother becomes more depressed and violent, however, the Rubins find it harder to maintain the facade of a normal home. In the confusing fog of his parents' dissipating marriage, Anthony is drawn toward pursuits that promise clarity: In the hockey rink, strong emotions play out on the surface, and in the stars, he can see an ordered universe of eternal permanence.
Initially, the adults around Anthony seem cruelly self-centered and thoughtless, but through the novel's changing perspectives, we come to see many of them as doing their best to reconcile desire and responsibility. Reiken is a master at shaping the shadows of grief these common struggles cast.
While his mother scuba dives in Florida and his father pursues an unsatisfying affair, Anthony is struck by sexy Juliette Dimiglio, the daughter of a reputed mobster who lives next door. She's a stunningly tragic young woman in an abusive relationship, but Anthony is convinced she's his b'shert, a Yiddish term for a person's one and only true love, the love that was meant to be.
His mother and Juliette have lost their faith in such a destiny, but Anthony and his dad keep stumbling around in the dark for it. The knowledge of what's practical, what's proper, what's good for you, can't keep these characters from following their hearts. In fact, that knowledge only adds to their pain. "You vault into things," Anthony thinks, "and then you hope."
Here's a book that justifies that hope.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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