There are still some shopping days left before Christmas, so I’m offering passages from some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year. Most of the books were published this year. Most of the books are by people I’ve had some contact with, whether e-mail or in person, but there are also authors who wouldn’t know me if they tripped over me in a doorway. In short, they’re here because I enjoyed their books and I think you will, too.
IN HOBOKEN, by Christian Bauman, Melville House, 2008.
I have relatives who remember Hoboken in the days when its riverfront bristled with docks, the Clam Broth House was a sawdust-on-the-floor joint with a separate eating area for women, and you simply didn’t venture east of Washington Street unless you were a cop, a stevedore, or someone in search of trouble. When I lived in Jersey City in the late 1980s, Hoboken was yupping up rapidly but still had the bruises from its postwar decline: a scary housing project; an abandoned hulk of a building near Observer Highway that had once housed a craphouse supermarket where the baggers panhandled you as the cashier counted out your change; crumbling brownstones in need of a big cash infusion. Now, of course, the brownstones are worth millions of dollars, the docks have been replaced with an esplanade, the Clam Broth House exists only as a hand-shaped sign, and the abandoned supermarket houses a Barnes & Noble and a CVS drug store.
One of the constants in Hoboken’s story has been the great music club Maxwell’s, which has been known for years — barring a brief, unfortunate period when some new owners tried to make it into a brew pub — as a place where you could see tomorrow’s great bands today. Before the city went high-rent, Hoboken was a place where musicians could find affordable digs and access to Manhattan via the PATH.
Christian Bauman uses that music scene as the backdrop for his third novel, In Hoboken, published earlier this year. Bauman’s perspective is not that of an appreciator, but a participant:
For fifteen years, songwriters — folk, pop, rock, whatever — had been coming to Geoff’s apartment on Tuesday nights. From the amateur to the obscure to the famous, all were usually welcome. You played your newest song and the group critiqued. Fiercely critiqued. When Thatcher was seventeen, a senior in high school — and still unknown to Mason as Randolph’s son — he’d been in a trio with James and another kid from their town, a tall, muscular Greek kid a year older named King Papas. The trio took the bus from Gary Ridge into the city one night to play the open mike at Cornelia Street Cafe. Three kids from the same Jersey town into acoustic music, in 1987 — not common. A guy who looked like a vacationing dentist came up after they’d played and took Thatcher aside. He’d introduced himself as Nate Goldman. “I’m a manager.”
“I know who you are,” Thatcher has said, heart rate accelerating. Goldman was a legend, an old-school legend, who’d started his career while still in college, in the 1940s, following Pete Seeger around like a puppy dog and offering a management contract to every Communist folksinger and black blues belter Seeger turned him on to. Goldman’s day had essentially passed, but his management stable — his Talent — was still impressive.
“Yeah, well — I can’t manage you three kids so don’t piss your lederhosen.” Goldman had grabbed a card from his pocket and a pen and scrawled something on the back. “You know who Geoff Mason is, smartypants? Yeah?” He gave Thatcher the card. “Here’s his address. You guys — whichever of you guys writes the words — you go to his place Tuesday night, any Tuesday night, and tell him I sent you. You can’t sing for shit but you got some good words.”
James was at Rutgers within a few months, but Thatcher and King Papas made Geoff’s apartment a religion. Thatcher ended up in the army, and Papas ended up in Boston, but there was a time they never missed a Tuesday night. In the four years Thatcher was in the army he never came back, even when he was on leave. He visited Geoff if he was home, and wrote often, but never came by on Tuesdays.
“So why don’t you come?” Geoff said again. “Bring both those songs.”
“It’ not a death sentence. Do what you will.” Mason reached for the bottle on the floor, filled his glass and then filled Thatcher’s. Thatcher took a long drink of the wine.
“You know what it is?” Thatcher said. “I just — I just don’t have a connection with those people anymore.”
“What people? Which?”
“The people who come here. The New Yorkers.”
“You mean your friends?”
Thatcher rolled his eyes. “Some of them. My friends are in Jersey.”
“So why don’t you like New York writers? Because they only write about life as a New York writer?”
Thatcher rolled his eyes again.
“Yes, well.” Mason tapped the stem of his wineglass with his fingernail. “We’re not as elitist as you think, and you’re not as worldly and of-the-people as you imagine. Just come on Tuesday and sing your proletarian drivel.”
Bauman’s first two novels, The Ice Beneath You and Voodoo Lounge, drew heavily on his military background; In Hoboken reflects his continuing career as a road-tested folk musician. The title is a semi-homage to Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, and In Hoboken, with its large cast of musicians and artists trying to make their way in a world that has few places for them will introduce you to a time and a place that’s equally exotic.
And yeah, Bauman blurbed my book. What of it? The man’s got Robert Stone, Hubert Selby Jr. and Neal Pollack singing his praises — you think he needs a leg up from me?