It’s only fitting that, in a year when I started to become so nostalgic about the 1990’s New Jersey and New York City music scenes, two books would come out in a short span of time, both focusing on the two towns where I’ve spent most of my life.
Loyal followers (and others) may remember my entry Evolution of a Town. Evolution of its Music. My Non-Role in the mid-90’s New Brunswick, NJ Music Scene, where I wrote about Ronen Kauffman’s fantastic memoir, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Goodbye: Bands, Dirty Basements and the Search For Self. (That was also followed by posts about various things like, New York City Area Concert Venues in the 90s, how the New York Times wrote about why bands are staying out of the City, as well as a few other music-themed ramblings).
Well was I sure surprised when I read about Christian Bauman’s third novel, simply titled, In Hoboken. It piqued my interest not just because the town I live in happens to be its title location, but because it, too, centers around the New Jersey and New York music scene in the 1990s.
Two books on such a topic in a year? Both that I can relate to? Very strange…and very enjoyable!
Let me make a few distinctions here, however:
First, In Hoboken is a piece of fiction, while New Brunswick, New Jersey, Goodbye… is a first-person memoir, and somewhat of an encyclopedia, capturing the true personality of the 90s New Brunswick music scene.
Second, my own experience with each location during that period varies greatly. As I have previously written, I was immersed in the New Brunswick scene in the mid-90s – basically, it was my life. Hoboken, however, is a different story. In the mid-90s, I was a Hoboken tourist. I knew the city well, not because I lived there or because I was a follower of its music scene but, quite simply, it was a place to go drinking and to catch a band at Maxwells when we couldn’t see them across the river in the big City. While Hoboken is, indeed, in New Jersey, it was simply easier and more exciting for us to venture onto the big island of Manhattan to see a show. I did see many shows in Hoboken, however, and it was probably the first place where I was able to get into a bar before I reached the legal drinking age of 21 (a practice that Hoboken bars have since disallowed, en masse).
Third, I should mention that my musical focus those days centered around ska, punk and hardcore, where Bauman’s book chronicles the tribulations of a young folk singer and his friends. The only thing I knew about folk at that point in time was how to spell it. Was there actually folk in Hoboken in the 90s? I’m not sure, but Bauman makes it seem like it’s something I would have wanted to listen to.
Fast-forward thirteen years: I live in Hoboken now. Which, to me at the age of 20, would have been quite perplexing. I often wondered why anyone would want to move here, when the big city was so close. To use Bauman’s own term, why would anyone want to live in the “foyer” when you could have the whole house? Later, I understood that Hoboken had its own charm and provides many luxuries that you can’t get across the river in Manhattan, all while being a five minute subway (OK, PATH) ride away (the ability to have a car, nice apartments/condos, everything within the small mile-square walk, real “neighborhoods” throughout, etc.). And of course, thousand-dollar per square foot apartments in Manhattan make Hoboken seem even more attractive (although, it’s not exactly cheap over here these days). This is the city that sets the backdrop to Bauman’s story, with the bigger one on the other side of the Hudson, only playing second fiddle.
The cast of characters that Bauman presents is a conglomerate of individuals who we’ve all known at some points in our lives. My intention is not to turn this into a traditional book review, but it is worth noting that he does a superb job at bringing each of them to life – particularly with the novel’s lead, Thatcher, whose only passion in life is his guitar and whose only goal is to get some place bigger and better than were he is now. Bauman would probably kill me for calling this novel a “coming of age story” (how cliché!), but in a way it is. I’m not sure if there is any true resolution come the end of the book, but in the year or so that the story takes place, the characters certainly do realize that life is something very different from when the tale first started.
Hoboken, during the period when this story takes place, is an excellent metaphor for its characters and their endeavors: A historical working class city slowly struggling with its transition into something more gentrified, all of which is on the doorstep of someplace much bigger – a bigger place where many of its residents strive to migrate to at some point of their lives, whether it be to live, or to get the big job, or to just be able to say that they spent some part of their life in New York City. In the 90s, people who moved to Hoboken didn’t ever think they would stay, and many of them didn’t’ – it was simply the waiting room to something more grand. To the characters in this story, the city plays the “waiting room” role quite well.
One of the reasons why I really can’t do a traditional review of this book is because my view is clearly skewed here. I’m simply too close to it all. As a local who has experiences with the Hoboken inside the pages of Bauman’s novel, as well as the Hoboken of 2008, it is particularly interesting to see the contrast of a city which has changed so much in such a short period of time. For example, the working-class men, who he so vividly describes as they wait for their coffee early in the morning, are no longer residents of this town – they’re now only visitors who make their stay for eight hours as they build million-dollar condos. A reader who is familiar with the setting clearly will have a different take on the story from someone who is not (I’m curious to see the take of this novel from non-Hobokenites). But the characters are interesting, the dialogue is witty and it’s 250 pages are a quick, enjoyable read. The group of friends who make up the story’s core have a shared sense of humor which I relate to (Bauman’s true sense of humor, I can only presume) and there are many amusing descriptions of places which still hold very true today.
Sitting on the corner between 10th and 11th at the site of the first baseball game ever played, it’s far enough from the guido bars and the college kids and the local watering holes to assure you one thing: those who are there *want* to be there. And, in Hoboken, that may be excuse enough to make a visit on a Friday night…
Mr. Bauman, thanks. You’ve done Hoboken well.
(I don’t suppose anyone will soon be publishing a novel about Oakland, New Jersey, the town where I went to high school? Didn’t think so…)