This superb volume is much more than a group of essays; it is a tale with a trajectory fashioned by a writer who is determined to be achingly honest.
Surviving Jersey, Danger and Insanity in the Garden State by Scott Loring Sanders. Outpost 19, 193 pages, $14.99.
By Roberta Silman
As some of you may remember, I reviewed a book of short stories called Shooting Creek and Other Stories by Scott Loring Sanders about a year and a half ago. Many of the stories were compelling and revealing — and dark — about rural folk in the Blue Ridge and Appalachia. They also revealed that Sanders is a writer with real gifts. In this new book, which he calls “creative non-fiction” his gifts are even more apparent than they were in the stories. For here Sanders lets loose, giving us all he has, and what he has produced is a book of essay/memoirs that are not only unforgettable but extremely relevant for young people and anyone trying to guide those who are young in these troubled times when so many options can lead to so many dangers.
Sanders is now an exemplary citizen who teaches creative writing at both Emerson and Lesley here in Boston, but what he has brought to such vivid life is his growing up absolutely wild in New Jersey in the ’80s and ’90s. The book is in three sections — BEFORE JERSEY, SURVIVING JERSEY, ESCAPING JERSEY — and the first essay is a powerful portrait of his father, who loomed and still looms large in his life: a tough, sometimes brutal man who was also capable of great love and uncompromising good values. That’s what makes this book so interesting — people are, in Forster’s words, completely “round,” often capable of acts of goodness and evil, sometimes on the same day.
You never know what to expect. As Sanders probes such subjects as coming close to being molested; a trip to the circus that has fatal consequences for an innocent child whose destiny, it turns out, was decided by a babysitter’s whim; or the crimes, yes crimes, of some of his contemporaries in high school who were doing drugs and breaking the law and becoming alcoholics, he also conveys these temptations so charismatically that we begin to understand how visceral and powerful they are, perhaps as we never have before.
We come to know intimately the town of Long Valley where he grew up. We learn about a murder that took place and could take place in any small town in America and watch Sanders become more self-aware as he realizes how much more vulnerable teenage girls are than teenage boys. He does this by evoking what he calls “The Hookerman’s Backyard,” but it could be any no-man’s land in small towns where ghosts hover and evil lies just below the surface and kids, almost by instinct, find themselves looking for trouble. Thus, Sanders shows how fear and risk often propel us into places we don’t belong. But he never preaches or warns, he simply tells it as it is, which is why this book will be so appealing to young readers as well as those of us who know too well the outcomes of what Sanders is exploring.
In two of the most powerful essays, “The Code That Can’t Be Cracked” and “Window to the Soul,” we come face to face with Schmiddy, a kid who has such an amazing ability to con that we can hardly believe what we are reading, then read on, in horror, seeing that this kid never really matures, becoming an adult so predatory, so utterly without a moral compass that he exudes an almost infinite source of evil. Interspersed with Schmiddy’s story are small sections simply called FACTS, and one of the last of these is one of the reasons why this book is so important:
U.S. overdose deaths increased 286% between 2002 and 2013. The overdose rate in New Jersey is triple the national average. According to the CDC, opioids were involved in 33,091 deaths in 2015 and opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999.
We know this, you may be thinking. But Sanders makes us see where some of that behavior starts, and that, once started, how difficult it is to stop.
As a writer with an almost uncanny perception of the perils of the ordinary world, Sanders has a fascinating piece on hitch-hiking which was once — not so much now — one of the rites of passage among adolescents. But it has always had real if sometimes hidden dangers. After he asks: “So why would anyone ever stop?” he goes on to say:
The answer is simple: people are kind, intrinsically decent. They want to help, especially when they perceive the person in question as less fortunate. It makes them feel good, basic human nature. And it’s precisely human nature the hitchhiker counts on.
Once a car stopped, the cat-and-mouse game truly began. There was a weird, unspoken mind game that occurred, the driver thinking, “Well, he must be crazy or armed if he has the guts to hitchhike,” while the hitcher thought,”Why would anyone pick me up unless they have ulterior motives?” There was a feeling-out process that never fully subsided until you’d been dropped off safely.”
And then Sanders tells us about the adventures of a hitchhiking robot, set out on its travels by two Canadian professors in 2014. Sanders’ ability to bring in the wider world so easily and so naturally are what give these essays ballast and resonance and set this book apart from the thousands of memoirs that seem to be flooding the shelves of libraries and bookstores.
Moreover, by the last section, ESCAPING JERSEY, we realize we have been reading much more than a group of essays, but rather a tale with a trajectory fashioned by a writer who is achingly honest. It is one thing to turn one’s lens on the gritty parts of one’s youth. It is quite another to turn it on oneself, as he does in “Steps,” where Sanders describes his confrontation with his wild behavior, his determination to change, and his relationship with his beloved son Mason. So, we realize by the time we close this wonderful book that we have been reading not only about fear and human mistakes and how to survive despite them, or even how to take control over our lives in ways we had not previously imagined, but also about the richness of life, its connections and joys — the very things that help us hold onto hope for the future.
Roberta Silman is the author of three novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows, will be available on March 5th. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at email@example.com.